UNBREAKABLE

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo | Photography By: Ramona Robbins

The indomitable spirit of American hero Aaron Hale.

Aaron Hale had just returned from two weeks of leave when the lead truck in his convoy reported a bomb on the road ahead. It was 9:30 on the night of December 8, 2011, and Hale was hitching a ride back to his small command outpost in the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan where he led a team of bomb technicians known in the military as EOD. “Can you handle it?” the lead truck radioed to him. Hale hadn’t even unpacked his luggage yet, but he was already back in the grips of danger.

He and his team navigated a robot out to the roadside bomb and carefully disarmed it. The next task was to retrieve the dismantled IED for evidence and disposal, but the robot couldn’t manage to pull the jug of explosives out of the sand. It would have to be retrieved manually. With his team watching on from the convoy, Hale walked carefully to the bomb. He was forty meters away when BOOM!

Another roadside bomb that he hadn’t seen detonated right beside him. Hale was rocketed into the air and then landed on his knees and elbows. His head was ringing, and he couldn’t see. Hale thought his helmet had been pushed forward by the blast, blinding him, but when he put his hands up to check, he realized his helmet was gone.

Hale tried to run blindly back to the convoy, but before he got too far a team member grabbed him and dragged him back to safety. Medics immediately cut open his uniform and assessed his injuries. The explosion had fractured his skull and broken every bone in his face. His right eye had been ripped completely from its socket and his left exploded in his skull, which was cracked and leaking spinal fluid. He was badly burned and shrapnel threatened to sever his carotid artery. A chopper was on the scene within minutes to evacuate him. Two days later, Hale was in Walter Reed Hospital, permanently blind and clinging to life.

The story of Aaron Hale doesn’t end there. Quite the opposite. The IED blast that rendered him completely blind only punctuates a miraculous life of overcoming staggering odds. Now, five years since the blast, Hale possesses a positivity and optimism that seems inconceivable when considering the grave traumas that he’s endured. “I’ve always felt that we all have the ability to be resilient,” he says. “I don’t have anything special that we don’t all have. I’ve just had the opportunity to dig in for mine.” Indeed, in the years since the blast, Hale has become living proof of the power of the human spirit as he continues to rise above the daunting obstacles thrown in his way.

After spending months in the hospital where he underwent extensive surgeries, Hale refused to allow the new darkness in his life to consume him. “I wasn’t going to be stuck on the couch feeling sorry for myself,” he says. Instead, Hale ran marathons, climbed mountains, and white water rafted. He traveled around the country as a motivational speaker, bringing hope and inspiration to other veterans who were battling their own wounds, both seen and unseen. “I just get out of bed every day and face the day,” he says. “I try to attack each day as though it is my last, because I’ve been blessed with five years of bonus time, and I’m going to take advantage of it.”

While Hale was reclaiming his life in Florida, four thousand miles away, a family friend was watching it unfold on Facebook from California. “I found his life to be fascinating and adventurous,” says McKayla Tracy. “He was constantly traveling, helping other people, being of service, and wanting to share his story to help other wounded veterans and veterans in general.” Tracy was “just a kid” when Hale first entered the service. They eventually connected over Facebook and began rekindling their friendship. “We started talking on the phone a few hours a day just getting to know each other and catching up on the last twenty years of our lives,” Tracy says. Eventually Hale convinced her to come to Florida for a visit, and they spent a week together at his home. “I enjoyed every minute of it,” she says. “But when I left, I just knew that I liked him and didn’t really know how it would ever work out.”

After Tracy left, Hale headed to Nantucket for the annual Holidays for Heroes event. Founded by island resident Tom McCann in 2012, Holidays for Heroes brings wounded warriors and their families to the island for a much-deserved vacation. The foundation had since expanded to supporting veterans throughout the year, and Hale had become both a beneficiary and benefactor. “I just wanted to give back and pay it forward,” he says. “So I told Tom any time I have an opportunity to come to Nantucket for one of these events, make it so I can help raise money.” Before an audience of hundreds, Hale gave a riveting speech at the Holidays for Heroes Gala. Little did he know then that his life was about to be thrown upside down once again.

Upon returning to Florida from Nantucket, Hale became sick. In the middle of the night, Tracy’s phone rang. It was Hale’s mother. He had been admitted to the hospital with bacterial meningitis. The deadly illness spread rapidly, and it was unclear whether it was connected to his former injuries. “Spinal fluid was pouring out, his fever spiked and he had excruciating pain,” Hale’s mother remembers. Tracy instinctively jumped on a plane to be by his side. When she arrived, he had been intubated and was in a medically induced coma. She slept by his bedside for days. “When he would wake up, he would be fighting, trying to get out of the restraints, breaking the restraints,” she says. “It was really scary and very sad for me and his whole family.”

When Hale’s condition worsened, the doctors in Florida determined that he needed to be transported to a better-equipped facility four hours away in Alabama. The medical team in Birmingham took him immediately into surgery and administered heavy doses of antibiotics to arrest the meningitis. Their efforts saved Hale’s life but not before the meningitis had claimed his ability to hear. When Hale finally regained consciousness, he was not only blind, but also now completely deaf.

“When I got home from the hospital the second time around, I lost my balance as a result of the loss of hearing in the inner ear,” Hale says. “All of the tools and techniques that I learned to use since going blind were audio based.” He now had to learn to live again. Hale spent days sitting in complete darkness and silence. “For a long time, I was trapped inside my body not able to see, hear or maneuver very well,” he says. A prisoner inside his own mind, he had nightmares of machine gun fire and explosions playing on a loop in his head. There was no reprieve. “Without distraction, I thought it would be there forever.”

But Hale was not alone. Tracy never left his side. Despite having only spent a single week together before he became sick, she devoted herself fully to him. They communicated by writing words into the palms of each other’s hands, and Tracy became Hale’s connection to the world. “There were months that were really hard and dark, but I knew that I loved him,” Tracy says. “I wanted him to be healthy and happy and would do whatever I needed to help him get back.” To lift him up, Tracy needed to find a project for Hale where he could direct his energy. Stripped of his ability to see, hear, and balance, Hale found purpose in one of the last senses he had left: taste.

When he first entered the service in 1999, Hale never intended to be disarming bombs in the battlefield. At the age of twenty-one, he enlisted in the Navy as a culinary specialist and cooked for a three-star admiral and his staff of the sixth fleet in Gaeta, Italy. “I’ve been cooking since I could reach over the counter top,” Hale says. “In the Navy, I got to cook for the top brass and hang up my uniform each evening and go experience Italy.” His fierce patriotism in the wake of September 11th inspired Hale to switch from Navy chef to Army bomb specialist, but he never lost his love of cooking. Now blind and deaf, cooking became his saving grace.

“I started cooking again and it gave me a distraction to take the focus off the pain that was going on, physical or otherwise,” Hale says. “I had something to look forward to.” With Tracy at his side, Hale put his chef coat back on. Communicating through touch, they prepared an elaborate menu for Thanksgiving. Family and friends raved about the dinner, but were especially impressed by his homemade fudge for dessert. As the compliments came rolling in, a new pursuit was born.

Hale became obsessed with making fudge, crafting new recipes and whipping up pounds and pounds of it every day. “Unbeknownst to me, McKayla was actually sneaking some of the fudge out the front door,” he says. “You don’t have to be very stealthy around a blind, deaf guy, but she was taking it and giving it away to neighbors, friends and coworkers.” Eventually people started requesting orders of Hale’s fudge and a business was born.

“Aaron told me that his dream was to launch this fudge business,” says Tom McCann. “And we wanted to help him make that happen.” Through a Holidays for Heroes grant, Hale and Tracy were sent to the premiere chocolatier school in the country and became master chocolatiers. The school then connected them with the top chocolate-maker in the world to provide the ingredients for Hale’s recipes. After landing a seven-hundred-pound order from Boeing, Hale and McCann realized they needed to expand the operation beyond his kitchen. Today, his recipes are being mass produced by a multi-million-dollar candy company, and Hale’s business, as McCann put it, “is blowing up.” As a nod to his former life, Hale named his company E.O.D. Fudge, the acronym standing for Extra Ordinary Delights.

But the sweetest thing in Aaron Hale’s life today isn’t his fudge. Out of incredibly challenging times, a storybook relationship took root and blossomed between him and Tracy. Since rushing to his bedside, she hasn’t returned to California. Instead, friends packed up her apartment and shipped her belongings down to Florida where she’s remained committed to every step of Hale’s recovery. “There’s no way I could have my outlook on life without her,” Hale says. “McKayla was there for me while I was fighting my way back and wasn’t going to let it defeat me.” This past fall, Hale proposed to Tracy on Nantucket with the help of Holidays for Heroes. They will be married on the island later this summer.

Today, Aaron Hale continues to thrive and beat the odds. A cochlear implant has restored his ability to hear, and Holidays for Heroes has provided him with a guide dog to help him navigate the world. This past spring, he overcame his impaired balance and ran the Boston Marathon. All the while, he continues to smile. “It all goes back to the right state of mind of attacking each day,” Hale says. “Once you realize that you can do something you previously thought impossible, it makes every other day a little bit easier.”