Navy SEAL will start at Yale this fall as a 52-year-old undergrad
James “Jimmy” Hatch was part of Special Operations unit sent into Afghanistan’s Kunar Province in July 2005 to bring back the bodies of 16 fallen colleagues, who had been killed by a rocket-propelled grenade. After the gruesome mission, Hatch says, he read a copy of Harold Bloom’s book “Genius,” soaking in the Yale professor’s thoughts and analysis around Shakespeare, Dante, Hemingway, and Faulkner. It helped to keep him sane, he says.
“I sent Bloom an email,” Hatch says. “I told him ‘I am going through a tough time and your book is like a balm. It gives me a safe place to relax and learn.’” Bloom, he recalls, emailed back a one-word reply: “Survive.”
He did. And this fall, 14 years later at age 52, Hatch will be starting at Yale as an undergraduate through the university’s Eli Whitney Students Program, which is designed for non-traditional students with high potential who have had their education interrupted. Fewer than 10% of applicants are admitted, comparable to general Yale College admission rates.
Hatch’s journey has been a difficult one, he acknowledges — involving combat, injury, depression, substance abuse, and a suicide attempt. But through it all, he says, there was a lust for learning. During his frequent trips by helicopter into combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hatch read philosophers like Neruda and Epictetus by ChemLight.
“Jimmy is wildly curious and hugely intellectually engaged. I had him up to speak in my class and, after about five minutes, it was clear he would thrive at Yale,” says Zack Cooper, associate professor of public health and economics, who counts Hatch among his closest friends and provided him a letter of recommendation. “There’s no doubt he’ll benefit from the program, but so too will our students. Anytime our students can connect with someone who is the best in the world at what they do, they can learn so much.”
Hatch is currently looking for an off-campus apartment in New Haven with his wife, Kelley, and Mina, his black Dutch shepherd service dog. He says that despite his time in war zones, the idea of starting at Yale as an undergraduate “scares the hell out of me.”
Finding love, and dogs, in the military
Hatch was drawn to the military from an early age. He imagined it as a refuge from a tumultuous childhood. He was put up for adoption at 18 months, ran away from his adopted family, and reunited with his adopted father during his teenage years when he was prone to acting out. Navy SEALs, says Hatch, “have proven their desire to be part of that family. It’s hard to watch someone cover you in a gunfight and not think of that as love.”
In the military, Hatch distinguished himself as an expert parachutist and aerial photographer. He was also one of the first SEALs to become a dog handler after 9-11 when the military reinstituted service dogs into training and combat. “Dogs are a force multiplier,” Hatch says. “They can do the work of six or seven men the way they see, hear, and smell. They do so much work that saves lives.”
Two dogs had such an impact on his life that their names feature prominently in his sleeve tattoos. Spike, a Belgian Malinois with an agile body and long ears, was killed during a raid in Iraq in 2005, hit by a pass-through bullet from Hatch’s own gun. Devastated, Hatch wrote the words to the Neruda poem “It Means Shadows” on the dog’s kennel wall. Remco was killed in 2009 during a mission to rescue Bowe Bergdahl, who walked away from his post in Afghanistan and was held by the Taliban for five years. Hatch was shot in the thigh during the firefight, sustaining massive injuries that would lead to 18 surgeries. The injuries ended his military career and led to a fraught readjustment to civilian life, where he struggled to find his purpose and suffered from depression, afraid to ask for help.
Fighting for the voiceless
Hatch later founded a nonprofit, Spikes K-9 Fund, to provide support for dogs used by police departments and the military, including custom-fit bullet-proof vests and healthcare funding. “These dogs are not volunteers,” Hatch says. “We’re bringing them in to solve human problems, to save our lives. It’s incumbent on us to take care of them the best we can.” So far, Hatch says the organization has helped 900 dogs in 44 states and raised $1.5 million.
Hatch has also become a vocal advocate for mental health interventions. “A lot of his work is about de-stigmatizing mental illness and mental health,” says Cooper. “When Jimmy tells his story, he gives permission to people who don’t want to talk about these issues to be more comfortable talking about their mental health and accessing care.”
Hatch says joining students on campus is an opportunity to provide an important perspective — even if it’s one that’s not easy to hear. “I went through arguably some of the toughest training imaginable,” Hatch says, “and I still struggled with mental health issues.”
He says he’s looking forward to meeting Handsome Dan. And he’s already embraced his new identity on Twitter at the handle OldGuyUndergrad, where he’s been documenting Mina’s visits to iconic spots on campus.
“I plan to be open-minded,” he says, adding that he’s looking forward to taking courses in the humanities, history, art, and literature. “I feel like I can contribute in a way that’s difficult to find.”