Heading to college is hard for anyone. But have you tried being at least 30 years older than most of your classmates? James Hatch did.
Who is he? Hatch had a career in the Navy — including more than 20 years as a SEAL — before heading to Yale University.
- He was a member of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group and was involved in 150 missions across Iraq, Bosnia, Africa and Afghanistan.
- His military career ended when he was shot and badly wounded in Afghanistan in 2009.
- Now he's studying at Yale as an Eli Whitney scholar, as part of a program for nontraditional students.
- NPR first talked to Hatch in 2019, when he arrived in New Haven, CT., as a 52-year-old freshman. He said he struggled to fit in at first: "I thought, man, I really have no business being here. But then, you know, things progressed and I could actually contribute."
- Fast forward to this fall and the 56-year-old is starting his senior year as a humanities major.
What has he learnt?
- A lot can happen in four years, and talking to All Things Considered's Mary Louise Kelly now, there is one bit of advice senior-year Hatch says he would give his freshman-year self: you've got a lot to learn.
- "At first, James Hatch was pretty scared, but I don't know that he was all that humble with his opinions about the world," he said. "The James Hatch you're speaking to now, I am the champion of the humble pie, man."
- As a humanities major, he has tackled some of the greatest works of literature (Moby Dick is one of his favorites) and he believes literature has been the "connective tissue" between humans for thousands of years.
- For Hatch, humanity is that throughline. Whether it's Captain Ahab or Achilles in the Iliad, humans and their choices (good or bad) are more common than we realize. "You're not all that original, you know," he surmises.
Want to learn more? Listen to the Consider This episode examining two years since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
How his past is informing his education:
- Hatch has thought deeply about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan two years ago.
- At the time, Hatch did an interview with CNN. He said the U.S. military should do an "after-action" – a debrief on every choice and event in an effort to learn from them: "Where we tear apart our conduct, all the choices we made," he said. "Because if you don't seriously reflect on the choices made in tough situations, you're probably going to make mistakes again."
- Yale's Dean of the Jackson School of Global Affairs saw that interview and told Hatch they should do exactly what he suggested – but as a class. Hatch got to question his former commanders, even the Taliban.
- He told NPR it's important to talk to people and reflect, even if that's not the easiest choice:
"Look, the military is kind of, I think, the easy button. And when we've had problems internationally, the military is kind of the first resource. And I just think we need to stop that. And that means we need to talk to people that we don't want to talk to. I sure as hell didn't want to talk to the Taliban, you know, but I think it's important that we do that kind of thing because there's a lot of dead Americans and Afghans who paid the price for some choices that were made. And I don't know if there's enough reflection on all of that for those choices."
So, what now?
- Hatch is set to graduate this coming spring.
- In the meantime, he continues to work with the nonprofit he founded, Spike's K9 Fund, which is dedicated to the training and care of working dogs.
- What's happening in Afghanistan two years after the U.S. left?
- A guide for adults going to college
- This no-frills college helps students get a degree quickly, simply and affordably
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A few years back on the show, we introduced you to a college freshman by the name of James Hatch. He had just started at Yale, and he was struggling to fit in.
JAMES HATCH: I thought, man, I really have no business being here. But then, you know, things progressed, and I could actually contribute.
KELLY: You see; Hatch was 52 years old. Unlike most of his Yale classmates, who had arrived straight from high school, Hatch had already had a full career as a Navy SEAL. That career ended after he was badly wounded in combat in Afghanistan. He enrolled in Yale in a program for nontraditional students. And when I first spoke with him in 2019, he was studying Homer's epic poem "The Iliad." And it was pissing him off - his words - because he felt it presented an unrealistic view of war and honor. Well, James Hatch has just started his senior year at Yale. He's on the line from New Haven. Hey again.
HATCH: Hello, Mary Louise. Thanks for having me.
KELLY: Did you come around to "The Iliad" in the end?
HATCH: I did. In fact, I'm a humanities major, but if I had Latin and Greek, I think I might even want to be a classics major. But I can't meet that requirement.
KELLY: The concern that it was unrealistic in the way it presented war and honor - did you figure out it was wrong, you were wrong? Or what changed?
HATCH: Oh, no, no, no. I was definitely wrong. It's difficult for a guy to juxtapose the war one knows with the war that's being talked about from thousands of years ago. Basically, the tools are different, really, but the humans are the same. And that's what I learned. That's the thing that finally came through to me - was that in spite of the fact that I have, you know, an iPhone and running water and, you know, all of those types of things, I'm still the same as - pick a character in "The Iliad" - you know, that's fighting and trying to figure out what the hell is going on, you know, given my experiences. Literature is the connective tissue between humans for thousands of years. And, you know, those guys in "The Iliad" or, you know, "The Odyssey" or even "The Aeneid" - you know, some of the difficulties that they encountered trying to fulfill what they thought was their destiny and, you know, some of the poor ways in which they behaved and the poor choices they made and the selfishness and - just look around. It's the same.
HATCH: You know? It's a beautiful thing. I think what it does partially is kind of let you off the hook. You're not all that original, you know?
KELLY: As we were settling into our chairs, you were telling me you've just come from class and that you're taking a class this semester on William Blake, the English poet. And...
HATCH: Yeah, I am. Yeah.
KELLY: You said, oh, man, or something like that. Why? What are you taking from that one?
HATCH: I think William Blake was similar to many people that I admire - you know, super-sharp, talented person and trying to figure out, you know, what's going on with this whole life thing. But he did it in such a way that you feel elevated even discussing it. It's soul stuff, you know? I didn't think I'd find that stuff in college.
KELLY: You're - what? - 56 now.
HATCH: I am. But when I wake up, I feel 59 or 60.
KELLY: Well, I'm not far behind you. I'm 52, and it somehow only recently occurred to me there's not going to be enough time to read everything I want to read. Do you think about that?
HATCH: Oh, my gosh, yes. It's almost like, I only have so many minutes left, you know? Yeah, for sure.
KELLY: And the huge library and all the stacks - and you think, I want it all.
HATCH: Yeah, it's - I'm just - I'm a lucky guy. That's for sure. It's beautiful here. And the soul stuff - I wasn't prepared for that. And I actually had another class during the last semester. It was called Public Plato with, you know, with Dean Gendler, the dean of arts and sciences. And in that, we went through some of the mental health stuff - you know, "Achilles In Vietnam." And I would refuse to read that. But because it was a class, I had to read it. And, man, I wept openly in class in front of the kids. And I talked about how hard - you know, the transition and being a veteran and losing people. And honestly, Mary Louise, I just didn't think anybody here at Yale had the gravitas to even open the door on those types of things. I thought it was this fluffy place where everybody plays nice. And it was not that way at all.
KELLY: I mentioned when I introduced you that you were wounded in Afghanistan. I want people to know it was badly enough that you required 18 surgeries afterward...
HATCH: Yeah, yep.
KELLY: ...And a lot of mental health challenges that followed as well. I thought of you as the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan two years ago. And so many people were asking questions about, was it worth it? Is this really how it's going to end? You wrestled with those questions, I'm sure, personally but also in class at Yale. Tell me about that.
HATCH: I did. So I was actually invited to go on a news program and talk about, you know, my feelings about it with Anderson Cooper. And I said we need to do an after action. You know, in the military, when we do a mission, even a training mission, we have a very serious after action where we tear apart our conduct, all the choices we made. We look at it from A to Z because if you don't seriously reflect on the choices made in tough situations, you're probably going to make mistakes again. At any rate, somebody at Yale heard my interview with Anderson. It was Jim Levinsohn from the Jackson School of Global Affairs. And he said, we're going to do that, and he hired Ambassador Anne Patterson.
KELLY: You got to question your former commanders...
HATCH: Yeah. Yeah.
KELLY: ...And the guys you were shooting on, right? You got to question the Taliban.
HATCH: Yeah. As we got into it, Mary Louise, about two weeks into it, I realized - this is a hard thing for me to admit to, but I was actually kind of part of the problem because in my heart, I truly believed that if we just killed enough people, they would just leave us alone. I thought, man, if we just get over there and just really give them a good beating, they'll stop. And then we'll want to fight, and they'll say, hey, man. Can we just chill? And that isn't how it works ever. That's just not how it works.
And so I felt pretty bad about it. And I thought, OK, what can I do? How do we eviscerate this whole thing inside, you know? And we interviewed the Taliban. It was right around Christmas. It was their spokesperson. He was in Kabul. They had to put a generator up for a light and to keep it, you know, warm enough for them to exist in there. It was pretty amazing. And he said pretty much the things that I thought he would say. But it was still the gesture of it, especially from a guy like me who had the attitude I had. Look. The military is kind of, I think, the easy button. And when we've had problems...
HATCH: ...Internationally, the military is kind of the first resource. And I just think we need to stop that. And that means we need to talk to people that we don't want to talk to. I sure as hell didn't want to talk to the Taliban, you know? But I think it's important that we do that kind of thing because there's a lot of dead Americans and Afghans who paid the price for some choices that were made. And I don't know if there was enough reflection on all of that before those choices, right? So I guess it's a matter of figuring out, you know, what's more important - humanity or hubris.
KELLY: Well, from the pinnacle of wisdom that is senior year...
KELLY: ...Anything you wish you'd known? What would you go back and tell freshman James Hatch as he was starting out?
HATCH: Freshman James Hatch was pretty scared, but I don't know that he was all that humble with his opinions about the world. The James Hatch you're speaking to now - I am the champion of the humble pie, man.
HATCH: I have found out so much of what I thought about everything is just not true. It's just funny. I mean, that could be really hard...
KELLY: You found out you know so much less at the end of four years of an Ivy League education.
HATCH: I really 100% feel that way.
HATCH: It's humbling, but it's amazing for sure. I am very fortunate.
KELLY: Yeah. We've been speaking with former Navy SEAL and current Yale University undergrad James Hatch. It's been great to talk to you. Good luck with senior year.
HATCH: You as well. Thank you. I appreciate it. Take care.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID AXELROD'S "HOLY THURSDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.