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No Barriers Podcast Episode 82: Exploring Resilience with Veteran Aaron Hale

Erik and Dave kick off our November series of episodes focusing on Veterans with Ret. Army Veteran, Aaron Hale. Aaron has experienced more than his fair share of hardships including being blinded by an IED and losing his hearing from bacterial meningitis a few years later. But, he has turned his tragedies into triumphs. Aaron is a wonderful father, husband, athlete, speaker, and entrepreneur. His lessons on resilience are more important than ever during these unprecedented times. A special thanks to CoBank for their generous sponsorship of our Veteran series.

Show Description: 

After serving 14 years in both the Navy as a chef to the Commander of the US 6th Fleet and then transitioning on to becoming an Army team leader in one of the military’s most dangerous jobs, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), Staff Sergeant Aaron Hale was blinded by an IED. Not letting his injuries hold him back, Aaron became an EOD instructor, motivational speaker, mountain climber, white water kayaker, and marathon runner. Four years later tragedy struck again when Aaron contracted bacterial meningitis which robbed him of his hearing leaving him not just 100% blind but completely deaf as well.

Again, Aaron picked himself up, dusted off, and continued to chase the best of what life has to offer. Today, he’s back speaking and sharing his story, running marathons, he’s a proud husband and father of a 9-year-old son and the recent addition of identical twins, runs a thriving chocolate company with his wife, and recently completed his first 100-mile ultramarathon.


Purchase Aaron’s Extraordinary Delights here.

Follow Aaron and his Extraordinary Delights on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter (@EODConfections)

The Boston Herald covers Aaron’s journey to the Boston Marathon

Aaron Hale featured on ESPN

Watch Aaron’s story on Fox News

Watch Aaron’s story on VIMEO



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Episode Transcript

Aaron : All those times that I've told people that every challenge is an opportunity to learn, to grow to excel, and I was sitting there going "Was that a bunch of BS, or do I have to get off my rear end and get to work? What's the alternative?" And when I made that decision immediately, it wasn't as hard. Just making that mindset transition, that pivot, things got a whole lot better.

Erik : It's easy to talk about the successes. But what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is Erik Weihenmayer. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon, and I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a No Barriers life, to define it, to push the parameters of what it means. And part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way. And that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in, in the summit, exists a map. That map, that way forward, is what we call No Barriers.

David : America's rural communities are home to millions of men and women who have served in our armed forces. CoBank, a cooperative bank serving vital industries across rural America is a proud sponsor of the No Barriers warriors program. Their partnership with No Barriers is one way they give back to the men and women who have served their country through military service. We are grateful for their generosity. Speaker 1: Today we meet Aaron Hale, who is an army team leader in one of the military's most dangerous jobs, Explosive Ordnance Disposal. It was during this work that he was blinded by an IED. Not letting his injuries hold him back, Aaron became an EOD instructor, motivational speaker, mountain climber, whitewater kayaker and marathon runner. Speaker 1: Four years later, tragedy struck again when Aaron contracted bacterial meningitis, which robbed him of his hearing, leaving him not just 100% blind, but completely deaf as well. Again, Aaron picked himself up, dusted off and continue to chase the best of what life has to offer. Today, he's back speaking and sharing his story running marathons. He's a proud husband and father of a nine year old son, and identical twins. He runs a thriving chocolate company with his wife, and recently completed his first 100 mile ultra marathon. Enjoy the conversation.

David : Welcome to our weekly, No Barriers podcast series where we will continue to explore this extraordinary moment in our lives while remaining true to the theme that we've always emphasized here, which is what's within you is stronger than what's in your way. A message that we think the world needs to hear now more than ever? Well, Erik, I cannot wait to talk to Aaron Hale today for, among other things, it's a great opportunity for all of us to go order some chocolate, which I'm pretty sure all of us could use a little bit more chocolate today. So I thought first things first, Aaron, welcome to the show.

Aaron : Oh, thanks, David. Thank you, Erik. This is terrific. What an honor to be invited on to the show. Big fan of both you guys.

Erik : Awesome. Hey, so Aaron, you and I met in Peru. Or before that while we were training. And in Peru, we climbed a cool peak together and got to know you. And I've always been a huge fan of yours. I think you are a total stud and you really have, I don't know, the word inspiration kind of gets thrown around too much, but you really have inspired me, you've endured a lot and you've overcome a lot, you really are doing amazing stuff. And so I really do look at you as an example of a No Barriers pioneer. So I'm really psyched to hear from you. And then I just want to dive in. So you were an EOD expert, right, and a lot of people don't even know what that involves. You were in the army. So tell people, walk people through because it seems like one of the scariest hardest jobs that you could sign up for in the military.

Aaron : You know, in fact, somebody sent me a link, this is years ago, sent me a link for... It was one of those polls that was world's scariest jobs. And the first one was army soldier. Number three was bomb squad. And number two was high rise window washer. So being an army bomb technician, I had two of three, so if this chocolate thing doesn't work, workout, I'm going to get a squeegee and get on a scaffold or something and get the hat-trick. But yeah, that's what I did.

Aaron : In the army, I originally joined the Navy as a chef, and did that for a few years until about 2006. Both wars were in full swing. And that was in the Mediterranean, I was serving a three-star admiral, and I was homeported, the ship was homeported in Gaida, Italy, which is a real hardship duty, but I wanted to play a more direct role in the effort. So I volunteered, I went to Afghanistan, and as a Navy cook, they put me in charge of an army chow hall. But while I was there, I met some EOD technicians, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, and getting to know these guys and learning about the job they did. They are first responders on the battlefield. And they're the ones that when everybody's running away from those roadside bombs and suicide vests and anything that goes boom, unexploded ordnance IEDs, this is what these guys do, and the life saving job they do for our troops for the innocents, It attracted me immediately.

Aaron : There is also a tight knit community and brotherhood, everything about it. I just knew that, that was my calling. So as soon as I got back from Afghanistan, I switched uniforms, and I switched jobs. I went from Navy cook to army bomb technician, I tell people, "When I got my first confirm kill with an egg roll, I decided to start saving lives instead."

David : Now, when you're telling that story, my heart's beating a little bit. Weren't you terrified to sign up for that line of work?. Some people would be running from that line of work. So what was going through your head?

Aaron : You know, to say that it was the absence of fear, it would be it would be a fallacy, a total lie. It's just that you were so well trained. And the job is that important, and somebody's got to do it, that you put your fears aside, and do your best to mitigate the hazard and do the job as safely as possible. And we are the most highly trained and well equipped bomb technicians in the world. But of course, there's a level of hazard there that you've got to accept. And of course, in my case, came very close to losing my life. But I just think of all of the lives I was able to save, all of the IEDs and UXO, Unexploded ordnance, that I was able to render safe and get off the battlefield before it got to one of our fellow troops. And that made it all worthwhile.

Erik : So what is the process? I heard you were crawling into holes and pretty wild stuff to dismantle these IEDs and so forth, right?

Aaron : Our job description includes everything from Marine flares and fireworks to nuclear bombs. Anything that goes boom, we are the first responders on a day to day basis, the IEDs, anything from bullets to grenades to landmines, anything that hasn't yet detonated, we know how to render it safe to approach it and how to dispose of it safely.

Erik : You had robots too right, didn't you have help from robotics technology, and so forth?

Aaron : We do have a lot of tech that we can employ, but it comes down to basically tradecraft, in simple skills. In fact, there's a lot of... Our training is heavy on electronics, circuitry, physics, chemistry, learning how these different types of munitions actually function and what sets them off. So armed with that, being able to have one tool or another, almost doesn't matter, so long as we know how to attack it properly. And that particular skill has come in handy, and I use this in my everyday life.

Aaron : I tell people about how an EOD team, at least in the army is usually three members, team leader and two team members. And they always send the highest ranking, the most experienced guy, the team leader, to do that long walk in the bomb suit. You want the most experienced guy doing the job. But they send these teams out with an entire shipping container, each of tools. And Everything from the bomb suits to robots to hazmat equipment, you name it, power tools. And then we get to places like Iraq or Baghdad, Al-Fallujah where we're given these armored trucks called Jervis.

Aaron : And it doesn't have as much space in it as, the shipping container, so you've got to pick and choose how many tools you can put in there, and some have to be left behind. And, of course, you still have to do the same job, then we got to Afghanistan, and some of these roads we're on, were just goop trails. We couldn't even fit the truck if we wanted to. So we were going on dismounted patrols, on foot patrols.

Aaron : And now, the only tools we could bring are the ones we could carry on our backs. And we still had to do the same job. So when I talked to groups, I talked about what tools you have in your kit, and most of the time, you don't have to worry, you can't be fixated, you can't worry on the tools you left behind or tools you don't have, you got to focus on what you do have at hand, the team members the skills and your creativity, and to get through the hardest times ahead, and it's one of the most important lessons I've learned in my life. And it's certainly carried me through both injury and illness.

Erik : So you have to have some MacGyver in you.

Aaron : Yeah, a little bit.

David : Aaron, you got us to a bit of your journey through to Afghanistan, and it was in Afghanistan that an IED blinded you, and then not too long thereafter, meningitis caused you to lose your hearing. Can you just tell our listeners a little bit about that journey and that part of your life, because we look at you now, and we hear about your business and your speaking business, your fudge business? And it seems like you are someone who just continues to figure out a way. And this podcast is partly about how do we figure out a way when those unexpected things hit us. So walk us through a little bit of what happened to you and how you managed?

Aaron : Well, of course, I deployed once as a Navy cook, and then after I'd switched over to EOD, I deployed to Iraq one time, and then in 2011, I deployed a second time to Afghanistan. This time, I was an EOD team leader. And this was 2011, and about eight months into the deployment, I was working on an IED. I'd already had it dismantled with a robot. But the robot couldn't get the bulk explosive out of the hole, it was too hard packed.

Aaron : And while we're trying to get as much evidence as we possibly could to go do what we call get left of the bone. If you think of a timeline, there's the financier, the bomb maker, the bomb and Placer, the boom and then there's post blast analysis and a lot of screaming and crying. So we want to get left to the boom and we want to get all those guys in the chain. I was heading down with my metal detector and evidence collection kit to go take care of this IED and collect, tape and wire and biometrics and a sample of explosive and get rid of the rest about 20 or 30 meters from the first IED, there was a secondary device that hadn't been detected yet. And it detonated, sent me into the sky and landed on my knees and elbows.

Aaron : The lights went completely out. I thought originally that my helmet had gotten pushed over my face that's why I couldn't see. I'm still conscious, I still had all my fingers and toes and knees and elbows and all that but I did a functions check, wiggled everything, seemed okay. Then I reached up to grab my helmet and adjust it and get back to work, When I found out that... I realized I didn't have a helmet anymore, It was gone. And I thought "Oh no, this is bad. The army is going to want that back."

David : Oh my gosh.

Aaron : It's really funny what goes through your head at certain times, but I'm not kidding there. I was literally thinking "My first sergeant's going to have my butt." But I was on a hazmat chopper within 14 minutes and I was on my way to Kandahar, then to Landstuhl, and then within 48 hours, I was at Walter Reed. And I had hope that I would get my sight back but the blast had completely removed one of my eyes, my other left eye. It even fused my eyelids together so I was in a permanent wink. The piece of frag had cut across the orbital ridge, across my the bridge of my nose and then gash in my... It was the other way around, my right eye was gone. My left eye had gotten gashed to the extent that they couldn't repair it.

Aaron : And also cracked my skull in a few places and I was leaking spinal fluid right out of my nose. So, that had to get patched. And then burns, bruises, blown up my eardrums, that kind of stuff. But from my neck down, virtually unscathed. So lucky for me, we Hales are really hard headed. So I couldn't have hit me in a better place. But yeah. Soon, I was trying to figure out then how the demons tried to get in, the why mes, the what ifs, that kind of stuff. But my family wouldn't let me feel sorry for myself, military training and my own upbringing, I didn't wallow in self pity for very long.

Aaron : And soon, I was at the blind rehabilitation center, the VA was training me to learn how to be a blind person. And as soon as I got my iPhone and voiceover and I was trying to learn how to use this technology, I was on Google researching "How to do blind plus..." All sorts of things blind plus outside, blind plus running, blind plus climbing.

Erik : So you get through and you're learning technology, you're learning how to adjust to blindness. And then double whammy right meningitis. Great.

Aaron : Yeah. Well, you know what? You can ask Jeff about this. I was two weeks away from climbing Kilimanjaro with Jeff Evans, when I'm feeling a little dizzy, a little fatigued. I laid down for a nap after I was just off the plane and back home dropping my luggage, just come back from a speaking engagement. And I felt really strange, incredibly dizzy. I literally thought I was falling over. And I don't know, Erik, if you have ever experienced this. When you're falling, you don't want to over compensate or overreact, you might just slam your head into something. So I tried to relax. And I didn't know where I was falling, but a few seconds later, I was exactly where I was I haven't moved.

Aaron : I just got that dizzy. So I lay down for a nap, and woke up. I don't know how much later, five minutes, 10 minutes an hour. With the most extreme, I don't know what to call it. It was a headache. It was awful. It was like somebody poured acid into my brain. So I knew I had to call 911. The operator said "State the nature of your emergency." And I said, I was a little embarrassed. I said, "Ma'am, I have a very bad headache." So... [inaudible 00:18:05] "On a scale of one to 10, how bad is the pain?" I said, "Ma'am, I've never felt pain like this in my life, and I've literally been blown up before." She said "Ambulance's on it's way." I found out, I contracted bacterial meningitis. The crack in my skull, in my sinuses, I guess either reopened or never been fully patched and there was a direct passageway through my sinuses to my brain. And meningitis crept right in and it was eating away at my brain.

Aaron : So over the next couple of days, whether it was the meningitis itself or the heavy doses of antibiotics to keep me alive, it stole what was left of my hearing that the bomb hadn't taken and it had taken away my inner ear balance, the vestibular balance. So I was bed bound in the hospital for weeks. When I got out of the hospital, still in a wheelchair because I couldn't stand up without help. And it was, again, another long road back. And this was four years after the bomb. And I felt like I was right back at square one. I was feeling sorry for myself. I was feeling I was feeling down and depressed. And I began to... Of course, my family again, would not let me feel self pity.

Aaron : And I was thinking about this. I've been preaching the words. I was preaching this triumph through tragedy, this strength through struggle, that the tools in your kit, and I was just thinking, "it was something out there was telling me I needed to prove it again. I needed to do it. One more time." I needed to bootstrap and I need to get back to work, being a father, a dad a son a soldier, even though by then I'm retired, and I still feel the duty to be at my very best, whatever that may be. So I Did what anybody in my situation would do started a chocolate company.

Erik : I remember when we were hiking last year, you were saying, "you had some conversations with God." And it was "Haven't I given enough? What?" This seems unfair, right? You're ready for one thing, but you're not ready for the second thing, right? How [inaudible 00:20:21] one to 10. Did [inaudible 00:20:23] floored? Probably out of 10, right?

Aaron : Yeah, I was literally trapped inside my body. I couldn't get any messages in, I couldn't say, couldn't hear anything. My girlfriend at the time, my wife now, was literally writing every word, every letter of every word, that she needed to get to me in the palm of my hand. So that... and that was the only way I could get a message in. I figured that I thought at the time was "Man, I should have learned Braille." But yeah, it was tedious, It was frustrating. But the feeling of being so isolated. And I got to tell you, everybody right now is doing the shelter in place this social distancing, I tell you what, I've been there, I've been isolated.

Aaron : And I was thinking about how social media and people are, "Oh, this is so awful." Welcome to my world, guys. It doesn't sound that bad. But truthfully, there was six months before I actually could get sound in and it was a few months later, before I could actually understand another human voice. And it was a lot of inner contemplation, there really was quite a few times where I was thinking, "when have I paid my dues?, when has one guy had enough? when is enough, enough?" But all those times that I've told people that "Every challenge is an opportunity to learn, to grow to excel.

Aaron : And I was sitting there going, trying to tell myself, "Was I saying just lip service? Was it a bunch of BS? Or do I have to get off my rear end and get to work? What's the alternative?" And that was really it, I can either get to work on getting better, and dealing with a situation, whether or not I ever was able to hear again, whether or not you know, medical advances, give me sight again, or hearing again, or whatever, I needed to make it the best of the situation I've got, and what I have and the tools... I still have my kit. And when I made that decision, immediately, it wasn't as hard. Just making that mindset transition, that pivot. Things got a whole lot better.

David : Well, Aaron, you have had a lot of experience dealing with completely unexpected things being thrown your way that many of us may have given up when that happened to us. And you even mentioned, as you were talking a little bit about what we're going through as a globe right now, which is things that were unexpectedly thrown at all of us that were struggling with, and they pale in comparison to what you're describing. But even so I'm just curious, what things have you learned in managing these unexpected traumas that might inform people who are struggling today with unexpected things, whether it's job loss or being locked at home, to having to deal with a dying family member, just curious, how we could apply some of this to our own lives.

Aaron : The best way to deal with the unexpected is to be the absolute best at whatever you're doing. The resilience is described as being like a rubber band where you get stressed, you get stretched out and you come back and how well you bounce back... Humans aren't that way, we undergo stress and we get completely changed, we can become stronger for it, smarter for it, more bound better, in some way or other. But the way to get better at any unknown stresses is to constantly put yourself under stress. Just do it in a controlled and planned way. So if it's an unexpected job loss, be the best at your job. Always training, always learning always getting better at what you do. Maybe learn new skills or be good at doing something else so that you have a fallback. Have a plan for the unexpected because the One thing that's for sure, is that the unexpected is going to come.

Aaron : If it's illness or injury, you should be physically fit. Eat right, workout, it's just a no brainer that a healthy body will undergo the stresses of illness and injury, far better than an unfit body. And then it's the same for your mind and soul. You can meditate, pray, whatever you need to do, to have the right mental outlook. And above all else, be grateful and have empathy, because those types of emotions will make any hardship so much easier.

Erik : Well, you put yourself into controlled stress, because you got back into the kitchen, right? That was one of the things you did in the Navy, obviously. So you get back in the kitchen. Now you're deaf, blind, and you're back in the kitchen. And where did that lead you?

Aaron : That was actually therapy for me. When I was waiting for the cochlear implants to kick in, for the surgeries to heal, for the [inaudible 00:26:09] to get tuned in, and I was there feeling pretty down and all of those technological aids, the talking phone, the talking computer, the barcode scanners, all that kind of stuff, all audio based, all useless.

Erik : You learn that you devoted your life and then bam! All that doesn't work anymore for you.

Aaron : Exactly. I'd put together a pretty good man cave in the garage. Yeah, my home gym home fitness center. And I couldn't even get on the treadmill, because it felt like, with my balance, being what it was, it felt like somebody was trying to rip it out from under me. So I fell back on something that I knew I could do. And that was cook. I've been doing it my whole life. So even without being able to see or hear, I could get in there, and I could actually still do a pretty decent job of cooking. And it was about the holidays. Thanksgiving was coming, so I decided we're going to throw this huge feast, invite friends and family and just have this enormous spread. And I started cooking, I started making desserts weeks in advance. And I was cakes, cookies, pies, all that kind of stuff.

Aaron : I was making batch after batch of fudge, and I was throwing nuts and spices and I was dumping alcohol into these things and they looked fantastic. And McKayla said she noticed two things. One was I had something on my face that she hadn't seen in half a year and that was a smile. And the second thing she noticed was that the fudge was just piling up. No family could eat it all in one holiday. So she was sneaking it out the front door, I say sneaking like I'd be real stealthy around a blind, deaf guy. But she was giving it to friends and neighbors and they were coming back and saying that was great. "Can we buy some of this from you? You got a birthday or shower or something?"

Erik : That's the voice.

Aaron : So-

Erik : I like it.

Aaron : My wife needs my help. But yeah, the capitalists in me said, "Well, of course you can." And that's kind of how the chocolate company was born.

Erik : And what's the name of the chocolate company? Because that's the best title of a company I think I've ever heard in my life.

Aaron : We called it Extra Ordinary Delights.

David : EOD.

Erik : EOD.

Aaron : Instead of Explosive Ordnance Disposal, we call it Extra Ordinary Delights. And yeah, it's been it's been a blessing for us. It's been part therapy [inaudible 00:28:50] part advancement in our lives. It's extra security for the family. And it's wonderful getting to work hand in hand with my best friend and wife.

Erik : What I love about the name EOD chocolates or fudge gives me is that, it seems like cooks, chefs pour like their life and to enter their recipes right into these creations. And, you've taken all your experiences, the struggles, the process that you use to work your way through some of these hardships and you poured it into something that's just straight up love and delight. And that is the most powerful definition of alchemy that I think I've ever experienced. And I'm getting a little teary eyed thinking about it. That's awesome, man, I'm so glad that you have this incredible outlet.

David : So tell our listeners how they can find your chocolates and place an order. Where do they go?

Aaron : Absolutely. So you can go to https://eodfudge.com/ And please, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram at EOD confections.

David : Perfect. And for those of you that are moving about and don't have time to write those down, we'll put those in our show notes at https://nobarriersusa.org/podcast/. Aaron, it's been wonderful to have you on the show. We're really thankful for your time with us and for your participation in some of our warriors expeditions. We'll continue to follow your incredible journey and support you. Listeners can go buy some chocolates to offer support. And you can find today's show notes at https://nobarriersusa.org/podcast/ And we'll put in there some of the amazing stories about Aaron Hale and his wife. He's been featured on Fox News, ESPN, Boston Herald many other places. And then of course, here on the No Barriers podcast. Thank you, Aaron, for joining us.

Aaron : Thank you, David. Thank you Erik for inviting me on-

Erik : [crosstalk 00:30:52]buddy.

Aaron : And looking forward to our next time together.

Erik : Yeah, me too. I can't wait.

David : Well, Erik, great conversation. What stuck with you from today's conversation?

Erik : Well, the takeaway for me... I mean, the whole thing is a takeaway. So it's hard to... This one's really hard for me to extrapolate. But a couple things, one is, as I said, you take your life, your suffering, your struggles, your relationships, and you pour them into this business, into this passion for cooking. And it becomes this incredible story of alchemy. And I also think the other thing that Aaron said about... he lived this COVID isolation for six months. So I think that's good perspective. For me, and for a lot of our listeners to realize that this is a human struggle, Aaron, and many others went through these struggles and think about all the people now that are suffering from isolation, in one way or another. And those are people we need to reach out to right now.

David : Yeah. I think the section of the conversation where Aaron was talking about, the things that had happened to him and how he went to a dark place, but there were always people to pull him out of that. And he made this conscious decision in his own head of, "I guess I could go there, these people are helping me out and I need to decide to live, I need to decide to embrace what's in front of me and keep moving forward. Because there's more that I have to live for." And I think that that is a really powerful message for all of us.

Erik : Yeah, it's resilience, and we all need to be resilient right now.

David : For sure. Thanks so much for listening.

Erik : Awesome, No Barriers. Speaker 1: The production team behind this podcast includes senior producer Pauline Shaffer. Special thanks to the Dan Ryan band for intro song, Guidance. And thanks to all of you for listening, we know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it and give us a review. Show Notes can be found at https://nobarriersusa.org/podcast/

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