Army Staff Sgt. Aaron C. Hale estimates he disabled as many as 50 explosive devices during his tour in Afghanistan.
Until Dec. 8.
As Hale approached a bomb, it detonated in his face.
“It was an awful experience, but it could have been much worse,” said Hale, a remarkably upbeat 34-year-old whose positive outlook and energy are clear within seconds of starting a conversation.
Hale arrived this week at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Fla. Medical personnel at the polytrauma facility will continue treating his profound injuries.
“The blast hit me in the face,” Hale said. “It blinded me. It took one of my eyes and rendered the other one unusable.”
The blast took his sight away instantly, broke bones in his face and sent shrapnel into his body. One jagged piece nearly severed his carotid artery. He was flown to a military hospital in Germany, then to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where he was treated for about a month before being sent to Florida.
Hale, a 1996 Revere High School graduate, is a member of the 760th Ordnance Company out of Fort Drum, N.Y. His unit is specially trained Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) soldiers.
Their job: find those who make, supply and plant bombs and to disarm bombs. They also analyze explosive devices.
After serving from 1999 to 2007 in the Navy — he worked as a cook, served one tour in Afghanistan and achieved the rank of Petty Officer Second Class — Hale decided to make a change. While in Afghanistan, he had met EOD soldiers.
“It was a small community and everybody took care of each other,” Hale said, “and they had a good time.”
He knew his next move.
Several months after leaving the Navy, he enlisted in the Army and began EOD training.
He served a brief tour in Iraq from late December 2009 until February 2010. After arriving home, he served on Secret Service missions as an EOD soldier and explosive expert. He was deployed to Afghanistan in March 2011.
“We work on all things that have been fired but didn’t activate,” said Hale, the son of Carol Cassese of Akron and Clay Hale of Laguna Beach, Calif.
“It is all in order to save lives,” he said. “The greatest pride I took out of it was every item I took off the field potentially saved someone’s life or multiple lives.”
Memories of explosion
Hale remembers the incident clearly. He never lost consciousness.
His unit had discovered a bomb where they were based in Kandahar Province.
Working with robots, he said, “I had done what I could do to render it safe, but it was still buried.”
Using the robotic device, the triggering mechanism — a pressure plate — on the bomb had been taken away. The rest of his unit was still in an armored vehicle as Hale approached the device wearing his EOD protective gear.
When he was a few yards away, the bomb went off.
He knew immediately he had lost his sight.
“I had all my moving parts, and I knew I needed to get out of the danger area in case there were secondary” bombs, Hale said. He began walking toward what he thought was his truck so that his teammates would not have to walk in the area where there could be more explosions.
Once he got to the other soldiers, they grabbed him and called in a medevac unit.
Reunited with family
Hale arrived in Florida on Tuesday with his wife, Kelly, and their four children, including a 13-month-old son.
He will undergo more surgeries and months of rehabilitation.
So far, he has gone through five surgeries.
Another coming up soon will address a problem of leaking spinal fluid from his skull, which was broken in the explosion.
“He is amazing,” Kelly Hale said of her husband’s attitude and courage. He has the most positive, upbeat attitude.
“He is the same man he was before the accident, just without eyes.”
Carol Cassese said her son and his family are thankful for the outpouring of support.
“We are amazed at how the community has reached out to him,” she said.
His father, Clay Hale, said his son’s attitude toward his injuries has helped everyone.
“This may sound a bit strange, but how well he handled his injuries, treatment and recovery probably made it easier for us to cope with his new life,” he said.
Paige Hale, of Akron, a pediatric intensive care unit nurse, said her brother has always been great at dealing with challenges.
“His spirits are high,” she said. “Aaron has always chosen to jump into the most challenging route to life. ... This is just another challenge for Aaron to move past.”
Hale, who played football and lacrosse at Revere, said he knows he is fortunate to have escaped the blast.
“I am very lucky to have all my limbs, to be alive,” he said.
In October, he re-enlisted in the Army with plans to remain in the service until retirement. Those plans have not changed.
His hope is to continue his enlistment, perhaps teaching EOD soldiers.
He said he must go forward.
“There are two ways to proceed,” Hale said. “You can be depressed, and then nobody wants to talk to you and you can live a solitary life without sight. Or you can press on and do the best we can and live your life with your family and friends around you.”
Looking back on Dec. 8, he has only one way to view it now.
“I had a lucky day,” he said.
Jim Carney can be reached at 330-996-3576 or at email@example.com.