Ryan Chiao

When he was 38 years old, James “Jimmy” Hatch was sent to Afghanistan’s Kunar Province in search of 16 fallen soldiers who had died in a helicopter shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. Days later when he returned from the mission, with disturbing images of American death cluttering his thoughts, he discovered Yale English professor Harold Bloom’s book “Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds.”

Back in 2005, while he was still stationed in Afghanistan, the book was an escape. He penned an email to Bloom, expressing his gratitude to the author.

Bloom responded with one word: “Survive.”

But Bloom and Hatch are no longer pen pals. At 52, Hatch is a member of the Yale class of 2023 and a pupil in Bloom’s English course on Shakespearian literature. Hatch is enrolled in the Eli Whitney Students Program — a program for academically-talented individuals who had their educations interrupted for more than five years.

After Hatch returned from war, he started a nonprofit called Spike’s K9 Fund, named after a dog that saved his life in Afghanistan. The charity provides funds for medical expenses and bullet-proof vests for police and military dogs.

“It’s an amazing place,” Hatch said of Yale. “You young people here are amazing. For me, as an older person, I feel really good about our future … people work really hard, and they give a shit, and it’s really a great place. I feel very fortunate.”

Additionally, Hatch is enrolled in Directed Studies — an intensive year-long program that allows first-year students to take small seminars with top faculty members in three courses of literature, philosophy and historical and political thought. He called the reading load for the three classes, which is notorious on campus, “daunting.”

“I’ve read more in the past two weeks [of DS] than I have in the past two years,” he said with a chuckle. At the time, he was reading the “Iliad,” which had a special meaning for the veteran given its focus on war. “Confronting the realities of war in a literary way with a group of young people — I can’t separate my experiences from the things that I’m reading because I have some things in common with some of the characters, so it’s a bit of a wrestling match … the 30,000-foot view of war is difficult after you’ve been in there swinging.”

He recalled one class conversation about the “Iliad” scene when Priam and Achilles — two opposing war heroes — meet in battle. According to Hatch, Achilles was inspired to go out and fight again after his friend was killed.

Hatch explained that as he was listening to the discussion, he felt compelled to share his own war experience.

“When you go out [on a mission] after one of your friends gets killed, you’re carrying a lot more with you,” he said. “There’s a capacity to be a lot more violent given certain circumstances. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to say anything because I don’t know what [my classmates] get from it.”

But many disagreed, saying that Hatch’s experience was invaluable to the classroom dynamic.

Lecturer Charles Hill, who teaches Hatch’s “Historical and Political Thought” course for Directed Studies, said that Hatch brings “seriousness, wisdom [and] connections between classic texts and real life today.” Hill called his student a “sterling character with scholarly discipline and enthusiasm.”

Hatch joined the military the day he turned 17. He said he was attracted to the family that develops among service members.

He originally enlisted in the National Guard before going to Jump School, a paratrooper training program. While in Jump School, a supervisor told him about a special opportunity he might be interested in — a Navy SEAL Team.

He quickly transferred into the Navy and went to SEAL Team training, only to quit, mentally and physically exhausted. He was then sent to a Navy ship for three years which he described as a “a jail.”

Only later did he return to SEAL training. After he passed training, he went on to serve as a SEAL for 22 years and 11 months.

On his final mission, Hatch’s military dog, Spike saved Hatch’s life while losing his own. From that day on, Hatch has focused on protecting and fighting for military police dogs. According to a July 24 Yale News press release, Hatch’s nonprofit, Spike’s K-9 Fund, has helped 900 dogs in 44 states and raised $1.5 million.

“Dogs saved me in the many ways a person can be saved,” Hatch writes on the Spike’s K-9 Fund website. “Powerful as they are, they can’t advocate for themselves when they need help. That’s why it’s my mission to take care of them. And I can’t do it without you.”

After leaving the military, Hatch went skydiving with public health and economics professor Zack Cooper, who originally introduced Hatch to the Eli Whitney program. The two stayed in touch and became fast friends. Hatch spoke at Yale at a Timothy Dwight College Tea last February and went to dinner with Director of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs Jim Levinsohn, who also suggested the Eli Whitney Students Program.

“Jimmy has a pretty unique set of life experiences,” Cooper told the News. “Working in a high speed military unit, being engaged in pretty sustained combat for a decade, getting shot, and wrestling with his experiences. That’ll come through in the way he engages with the material in the classroom. When I was in college, you could read and discuss war. He’ll be able to say what war was actually like.”

He went on to say that Hatch’s love for learning is “contagious.” Unlike some of the other students at Yale, he is not looking for a job or a grade, he added.

“He’s reading books and engaging with the material because he wants to learn and refine the way he thinks about the world — I think that’s going to rub off. I know it’s rubbed off on me,” Cooper said.

Unfazed by the college admissions process, he said he finished his college admissions essays in about 15 minutes.

Then he was accepted.

“I was shocked,” Hatch said.

He said that he and his fiancee, who lives in Virginia, look at Yale as a huge opportunity. They had previously done deployments. For them, Hatch’s four years at Yale were just another deployment.

He said he wanted to go back to school to “make him a better human.”

His journey — active combat, severe injury, depression and mental health issues — has been difficult, he added.

“In the unlikely event that I graduate — that they don’t figure me out when I turn my first paper in crayon next week — it’ll make me a better person and a better communicator,” he joked.

He said that during his involvement in several wars, he became angry with the intellectual class — a group of policymakers who made decisions about war without living through it. Hatch explained that by studying at Yale, he will bring not only his experience in military combat but also his world-class education to the table in future policy discussions.

He also said he wanted to spread the idea that Yalies are not “snowflakes” — or University students who are easily offended and overly sensitive. Instead, he called Yale students “ballers.”

“I’m so happy he’s here,” wrote Levinsohn in an email to the News. “I’m proud of Yale for what it’s done in welcoming him here and proud of Jimmy for jumping into the deep end and hoping there’s water down there.”

Skakel McCooey | skakel.mccooey@yale.edu