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52-Year-Old Former Navy SEAL James Hatch On His First Semester At Yale


Back in September on the show, we introduced you to James Hatch, ex-Navy SEAL wounded badly in combat in Afghanistan and now, at the age of 52, a college freshman at Yale, an experience that Hatch told me can feel pretty terrifying.


JAMES HATCH: My first class - I was 10 minutes into it, and it was a seminar class. I'm sitting there with essentially, you know, 13 other teenagers and the instructor, who I'm - I'm probably the same age, maybe a little older than my instructor. And I thought, man, I really have no business being here. But then, you know, things progressed, and I could actually contribute.

KELLY: Well, with the first semester now behind him, Hatch sat down and wrote an essay for Medium titled "My Semester With The Snowflakes." So we have called James Hatch back to check in on how it's all going.

And James, it is great to hear your voice again. How is it going?

HATCH: Man, thanks for having me back. It's going really well. It's shocking and very rewarding. And I feel quite fortunate.

KELLY: But you finished the first semester - right? - exams now behind you.

HATCH: Yeah. I mean, I did finish. I have a couple of grades that I'm still waiting on, so we'll see. (Laughter) We'll see how well I finished.

KELLY: What were your expectations of what students at Yale would be like, and how accurate were those expectations?

HATCH: I couldn't, like, paint the whole place with a brush, but what I was worried about is that there would be people who would be threatened or offended by me being there, you know, having been - I spent, you know, some time in combat and served my country for over 25 years. And I was worried that there would be people that would say, hey, man, we don't want you here. You're...

KELLY: Oh. You were worried about maybe some anti-military viewpoints.

HATCH: Yeah. Yeah. For sure - especially somebody like me, you know? Like, I wasn't - you know, I wasn't going overseas and trying to help the locals by doing research or - you know, my job was to go out and capture and kill bad guys. You know, I just - I was worried that people would, you know, kind of reject my presence there in that environment. That has not been my experience.

KELLY: You wrote in this essay about one young woman who you're in class with who came up to you after class one day and wanted to talk about her granddad.

HATCH: Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah. Tell me the story.

HATCH: She's an exceptional young woman, even among exceptional people. She's just got a lot of energy. And being in class with her is great. She's sharp young lady. But at any rate, she grabbed me after class one day and said, hey, you know, I'm really glad to be here with you. My grandfather was here at Yale when World War II started, and he went off and flew airplanes for the Navy, flew in the Pacific. And he came home after the war and came back to Yale, and he couldn't finish. He locked himself in his dorm, and he drank a lot. And he had to leave. And she said, so I feel like I'm kind of finishing for him, and I'm here - sorry - and I'm here with you, you know, a veteran.

So that was really, really compelling. You know, it was a connection between, you know, me and this guy who flew airplanes in the Pacific in the Second World War through this young woman who's just a - you know, just a dynamo. You know, it's - it was amazing.

KELLY: He had, I guess, maybe what we would describe today as PTSD after flying in combat.

HATCH: Yeah. I mean, I'm certainly not capable of diagnosing that.

KELLY: Sure.

HATCH: But I'd be willing to bet that he struggled with things that happened when he was in, you know, combat, you know, for sure.

KELLY: I'll note for people who didn't hear our earlier conversation - you fought that fight yourself. You came back and struggled with alcohol and drugs and trying to reacclimate after combat.

HATCH: That's true. I did.

KELLY: Yeah. I mentioned the essay that you wrote reflecting on how this first semester has gone and that the title that you gave it is "My Semester With The Snowflakes," the snowflake reference being to this stereotype of super liberal, super young people who melt on contact with real life and society. And it sounds like you haven't met so many of them.

HATCH: I have not. I have not. And you know, I said in the essay, you know, these kids don't think they're any more special than any other 18- to 22-year-old kid. I mean, I remember when I was that age, and I thought the world revolved around me. And the difference is these guys work a lot harder at 18 than I did, at least academically. And I was in the military. And you know, that was tough. This is tough, too. And these guys are - they're really in it. They're in it hard. It's really neat to watch. I call myself a snowflake now. It's just funny, you know?

KELLY: We talked before about what you were hoping some of those teenagers who you're in class with now might learn from you and your life experience. Are there stories you'd tell me about kind of how that has been a two-way street?

HATCH: I think one day, actually, in philosophy class, I said something just kind of off the cuff that really, I think, made an impact on a lot of people. And I said, you know, in combat, your greatest fear isn't that you're going to die. Your greatest fear is that you're going to do something wrong, and it's going to let down your team. And it might get somebody else hurt or killed. And that - that's at the forefront of your mind. And I think it's instructive with regard to teams and especially when the circumstances are high.

And the professor even mentioned that at the end of the semester. We were kind of going around the room, talking about things that had impacted us. And he brought that up. He said, that's not something I would've ever known.

KELLY: It sounds as though, in a way, you're making the case that there maybe should be more 52-year-old tattooed combat veterans wandering around campuses, sharing a very different perspective on what you all are studying and what you're reading.

HATCH: Yeah, I think I would agree with that. And I think - but further, I think it's important to have different lives, different experiences from as many angles as you can get them. And in that environment, there has to be a place where you can be uncomfortable hearing things that you disagree with or thinking about and talking about difficult subjects that are affecting our culture. There has to be a place where you can do that in order for things to improve.

You know, just screaming at each other across, you know, Twitter feeds or, you know, Facebook - that's just not going to solve anything. Sitting down in a room with people and dumping these ideas out from these ancient texts - you know, I think that's the great gift of the university. And I think we're fortunate. So, you know, having veterans there - yeah, I think it's important.

KELLY: When we talked back in September, you were on your way to literature class.

HATCH: Yeah.

KELLY: And you were reading "The Iliad," and it was really pissing you off - your words.

HATCH: Yeah.

KELLY: And I wanted to follow up and ask - did you...

HATCH: God bless you for bringing that up.

KELLY: Did you make your - really? I mean, did you...

HATCH: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Make peace with Homer by the end?

HATCH: I did. I really did. I just didn't get it.

KELLY: You were struggling with, like, the way that Homer writes about honor and saying that...

HATCH: Yeah. War...

KELLY: ...This doesn't square with my experience in war.

HATCH: Right. And I see it as a little more - a little less shiny - what it was being painted in the first part, or at least my grasp of the first part of "The Iliad." But as we got going and as the professor started, you know, discussing kind of how things should be read, it was clear that, yeah, I think everybody ought to read "The Iliad," especially if you want to grow up and be in the military. And if you want to be in politics and make decisions about sending other people's kids to war, you probably ought to read "The Iliad."

KELLY: And why?

HATCH: You know, all of the questions, all the craziness, all of the madness that goes along with that kind of stuff. It's difficult to translate. And I don't know who Homer was. I don't think anybody else does. But I think he had a pretty good idea of all of the madness that goes along with it.

And, you know, we used to joke about, you know, these great flowery words - you know, honor. Yeah. And, you know, you talk to the guys that were fighting. You know, those guys can't eat honor, and they're hungry, you know what I mean? They're fighting for a different reason. So I feel like it covered all of the bases, really, when I got to the end of it.

KELLY: Well, James Hatch, it's been great to speak to you again. Thank you.

HATCH: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

KELLY: James Hatch - he's a 52-year-old veteran, a former Navy SEAL and he just finished his first semester at Yale.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1973'S "SEPTEMBER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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