Retired Army Staff Sgt. Aaron Hale is the All Sports Association’s Amateur Award winner

SANTA ROSA BEACH — Aaron Hale has never been comfortable with individual accolades.


To him, everything he does, has done and will do is in service of living the best life he can, and all of it is a team effort. Whether running the Boston Marathon, climbing mountains in the Peruvian Andes or whitewater kayaking, all of his recognition deserves to be shared.


Especially after his injuries.


A retired Army staff sergeant, Hale was deployed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, as a Explosive Ordnance Disposal team leader when an IED explosion rendered him blind in December 2011. Four years later, a battle with bacterial meningitis “nearly killed” him and left him deaf until he was fitted with cochlear implants.


“After losing my eyesight and, especially, after losing my hearing, every endeavor has become a team sport,” said Hale, who lives in Santa Rosa Beach.


That makes winning the All Sports Association’s Amateur Award all the more meaningful.


“It’s incredible,” said Hale, who will honored at the All Sports Award Banquet on Feb. 7 at the Emerald Coast Convention Center. “It caught me by surprise actually. I didn’t really consider myself as a serious athlete. I’m just doing what I can to stay healthy and push myself.


“Of course I am honored and I appreciate the recognition, but I kind of shy away from the recognition; I like to point towards all the support I get. I call ’em my team members, whether that’s my military team or my family, who really do give me the strength and support for all the success I’ve had in my life.”


A Navy cook, Hale volunteered to go to Afghanistan in 2006 where he first came in contact with a group of Army EOD technicians and began learning about bomb disposal. Realizing it was his calling, Hale switched branches when he returned from Afghanistan and headed to Eglin Air Force Base in 2007 to study at the EOD school before he returned to the Middle East once more.


He was diffusing one IED when a second some 20-30 meters away detonated and launched him into the air, according to an ESPN article published in 2017. He was declared blind a few weeks later.


His indomitable spirit never waning, Hale was still in a hospital bed when he started researching how to cope with his disability.


“I decided that if I was gonna be blind, I was gonna be the best darn blind person I possibly could,” Hale said. “I started researching how people with blindness still were able to do daily tasks, and then I started researching how they got outside. I didn’t want to be stuck indoors.


“I was terrified of being stuck on the couch or locked at home afraid to go outside.”


The stories of Erik Weihenmayer and Lonnie Bedwell particularly inspired him. Weihenmayer became the first person without eyesight to summit Mount Everest in May 2001, and Bedwell, also a military veteran, was the first to complete a blind descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.


“So, if these guys could do these amazing feats, I could certainly get outside, so I sought these guys out,” Hale said. “I climbed a mountain with Erik Wihenmayer, I kayaked whitewater with Lonnie Bedwell and I just kept seeking out those who had gone before me, and I kept trying to push myself and see how to live a great life.”


In 2014, Hale ran four marathons in four months to qualify for his first Boston Marathon in 2015. He was set to climb Mount Kilimanjaro the same year until contracting bacterial meningitis.


The infection also affected his sense of balance.


“I left the hospital wheelchair-bound,” Hale said. “By the time I’d gotten on my feet, I was using the trekking poles I’d taken into the mountains to just get to the mailbox and back.”


In September 2016, he ran his first marathon after the infection in his hometown, Akron, Ohio, and set a personal record while still dealing with his hearing and balance issues. The race qualified him for his second Boston Marathon.


At 39 years old, he finished the race in 4 hours, 35 minute, 52 seconds alongside his guide Frank Fumich, an “ultra-marathon runner,” according to ESPN.


“It was another triumph after yet another tragedy,” he said. “It made it all that more important and all that more special to me because I could still prove that we could succeed after hardship.”