James Hatch ’23, an ex-Navy SEAL and Eli Whitney first year at Yale, spoke on Saturday about his experience shouldering his backpack. He wasn’t referring to the workload at Yale, though — Hatch was talking about a metaphorical backpack filled with emotional baggage.
Hatch travelled to the Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library in Branford, Connecticut, to share his story with the broader community. Hatch’s presentation about his experience in war and how he used his recovery to inform his outlook on life was filled with moments both touching and humorous. His presentation outlined his involvement in the Navy, his career-ending injury, his battle with depression and addiction and how he eventually learned to empty his proverbial backpack and grow from his pain.
“Within minutes of being involved in violence, when I felt the full weight of the human ugliness that I’d just seen, I reached for these writers [Neruda, Epictetus or Aurelius],” Hatch read from the introduction of his book “Touching the Dragon: And Other Techniques for Surviving Life’s Wars.” He continued: “Their words were a balm. They helped me not lose hope in the rest of humanity.”
Hatch — who, in December, penned a reflection on his first semester at Yale titled “My Semester with the Snowflakes” that received significant attention both within and outside of the Yale community — joined the military at 17 years old, right after high school. After quitting SEAL training the first time, Hatch graduated in January 1990 and spent the next 25 years in the service. Over the course of his military career, Hatch became the Special Ops Navy SEAL Senior Chief, a master naval parachutist and an expert military dog trainer and handler. Hatch completed over 150 Direct Action missions, in which he and his team were sent to capture or kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Iran.
In the talk, Hatch said that a mentor told him that people can be two things in life: an asset or a liability. He allowed the advice to guide him through his time in the military, but also recognized that being an asset all the time is an impossible task.
“There are times in your life when circumstances conspire against you and you’re not able to be an asset and that’s when we need to help each other out — that’s exactly what happened to me,” Hatch said.
In July 2009, Hatch was sent on his final mission to rescue Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who had deserted his post and was captured by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. On a clear, bright night — terrible conditions for a rescue mission on enemy territory — Hatch’s team received information on Bergdahl’s location and helicoptered in to rescue the hostage. Hatch split up the team and went with service dog Remco and his handler.
During the mission, Hatch was shot through the femur and Remco, the dog he was serving with, was killed. Luckily, two soldiers with him had attended the Special Forces Medical Training Center and saved his life in the dark and with enemies shooting at them, using only what they had in their backpacks.
Hatch’s injury required 18 surgeries, and he had to learn how to walk all over again. The injury effectively ended any future with the military that he wanted, and he slowly started to sink into hopelessness and depression. Hatch said that he blamed himself for failing in a “no-fail environment,” and that he felt miserable inside.
“We all have these backpacks — things that happened to me in my life that I never dealt with that I just tossed in my backpack, and I was beginning to feel the weight of it,” Hatch remembered. “I was taking a lot of meds for pain but there were no meds that could give me hope.”
After battling with alcoholism and depression, Hatch attempted to commit suicide and was stopped only by the police. He said that the police that day saved his life by making him feel like a human and like they cared about him. Hatch was sent to the Naval psych ward, where he began his road towards healing. Hatch noted that his time in mental hospitals taught him that he had to forgive himself, the first step towards touching his dragon of guilt and shame.
Eventually, Hatch channeled his energy to create the nonprofit Spike’s K9 Fund, named after his first military dog. The nonprofit is dedicated to helping military dogs who are injured or killed in the line of duty to find protection, support and rehabilitation. The four stars on his logo each represent a dog Hatch served with that was killed in combat. Today, Hatch’s organization has helped over 1,000 dogs.
Helen Pedersen-Keiser, a Gold Star mother and attendee at the talk, is a proud supporter of Spike’s K9 Fund. Her nonprofit APK Charities, founded in memory of her son Captain Andrew Pedersen-Keel, donates regularly to the organization to promote its cause.
“We have no idea looking at [Hatch] who he’s been as a soldier,” Pederson-Keiser said. “We owe him a debt of gratitude that is unimaginable.”
Hatch’s story was pieced together and compiled into his book, which he co-wrote with Harvard graduate Christian D’Andrea. The book follows Hatch’s tremendous journey from being a senior chief to an injured veteran with a shattered femur, and finally to a Yale student and founder of Spike’s K9 Fund.
“Jimmy is always supporting all of our classmates and he’s just a phenomenal person,” Zaporah Price ’23, a classmate of Hatch and staff columnist for the News, said after the talk. “He deserves so much support and I was brought to tears today.”
As he wrapped up his presentation, Hatch left the audience with these final pleas: to be kind to yourself, to be unafraid of uncomfortable conversations and to take care of others.
Hatch’s book “Touching the Dragon: And Other Techniques for Surviving Life’s Wars” is available on Amazon and at local bookstores.
Rebecca Huang | firstname.lastname@example.org