Former Navy SEAL Returns To School For His Freshman Year At Yale At 52 Years Old NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with James Hatch, a former Navy SEAL who recently started at Yale as a 52-year-old freshman.

Former Navy SEAL Returns To School For His Freshman Year At Yale At 52 Years Old

Former Navy SEAL Returns To School For His Freshman Year At Yale At 52 Years Old

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NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with James Hatch, a former Navy SEAL who recently started at Yale as a 52-year-old freshman.


Our next guest is 52 years old, a former Navy SEAL and a member of the incoming freshman class at Yale. James Hatch is heading to college after more than a quarter century in uniform. His military career ended after he was badly wounded serving in the mission to find Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant who deserted his post in Afghanistan.

Hatch is attending as an Eli Whitney scholar - that's a program for nontraditional students - and he joins me now from New Haven.

Hi, there.

JAMES HATCH: Hi, Mary Louise. Thanks for having me on.

KELLY: Glad to have you on. How are these first few days going?

HATCH: Excellent. Overwhelmingly good.

KELLY: What are you planning to focus on as your major?

HATCH: I really enjoy the humanities. And I really feel like there's a place for it today. I know that STEM is kind of the trend, and I get it. But I also believe there's a place, especially in, you know, public policy and things like that, for the humanities - a little bit of history and philosophy and, of course, literature and all that.

KELLY: I guess it's a related but somewhat different question from what are you planning to study, which is what do you want to learn?

HATCH: Well, simply put, I just want to be a better human. And I'd also enjoy being able to contribute into conversations where people in power are deciding to send other people's kids to war. So I think with my background in the military as a SEAL and the special operations community and then an undergraduate degree from a university like Yale would maybe open some doors for me to be able to sit in on those discussions before we start making choices rashly to send people into wars.

KELLY: I mean, I hear from speaking to you love of learning. Why did you choose to go down a military path and not go to college at a more traditional age, when you were 18?

HATCH: You know, college wasn't really - I didn't like school at all. And I didn't want anything to do with it, truthfully. And I joined the military, you know, the day I turned 17 and got the heck out of there.

But after I got in the military and I met people who I considered to be, you know, smart and I started reading things, you know, I just - it kind of took off. I caught fire a little bit. But I read things that I truthfully didn't, you know, understand, but I got the gist that they're really important. And so now I actually get to read them, and then I have to be responsible for telling people what's in them. And that's a whole different world.

KELLY: I saw that you told the Yale newspaper that starting as an undergrad scares the hell out of you. And I read it, and I thought this is a guy who's helicoptered into combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Why does Yale feel scary?

HATCH: Yale is scary because it's an - you know, similar to the SEAL teams, you know, there's a significant vetting process that goes into getting here. And so when, in fact, you are actually let through the door, which I was shockingly, then you have to confront the fact that OK, you asked for this, and here it comes.

And so truthfully, my first class, I was 10 minutes into it, and it was a seminar class. We were having a discussion. And I'm sitting there was essentially, you know, 13 other teenagers and the instructor, who - 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. It's just - it's a very - it's an elite organization. Amateur hour is over.

KELLY: Yeah. Although as you note, you were used to that from your, you know, two-plus decades in military service - showing up, doing the work.

HATCH: That's what I keep telling myself.


KELLY: And at least they don't make you, I don't know, drop and do push-ups if you don't get the problems set it on time.

HATCH: Right, no push-ups, and nobody's really yelling yet. And that actually is a bit uncomfortable. I'd rather just get yelled at.

KELLY: Yeah. To let people know just a little bit more of your story and how you got here, you needed 18 surgeries, I read, after you were wounded in that rescue mission in 2009. And I read - you've talked about how you suffered PTSD and drank too much and took drugs and even contemplated suicide. And I'm so happy to talk to you and that you're where you are now. And I also - it made me wonder how that informs how you carry yourself on campus as you move around and what your classmates might have to learn from you.

HATCH: You know, that's an - I'm really glad you asked that because, you know, based on my background, you're either an asset, or you're a liability. You're bringing something to your family, to your community, to your classmates, to your team, or you're kind of taking away from it. So I'm constantly thinking, you know, what can I bring.

And I think, you know, people talk a lot about mental health. And so you mentioned the 18 surgeries. And that's a significant amount of surgeries, but I actually spent more time in psychiatric hospitals than I did in medical hospitals. I think what I feel like I can, you know, bring here is that, you know, we need take care of one another. You know, people talk a lot about mental health resources, but the thing that helped me get to the point where I can, you know, be on the phone with you talking about being a freshman at Yale is that my friends, they were OK enduring the discomfort of getting in my face and saying hey man, you need to get help. We don't know how to help you, but we can get you across that bridge to those resources.

And so at some point, if there are people, students or whomever who are having, you know, troubles, maybe I can help them cross that bridge as well, too. And so I kind of keep that in the back of my head while I'm crushing through Herodotus trying to figure it out.

KELLY: (Laughter) I hate to laugh. You're bringing back bad memories of crashing through Herodotus.

HATCH: Yeah.

KELLY: I mean, what you're describing is fascinating. You're saying you've got to show up; you've got to do the work. These are lessons you've learned. But you also have to figure out none of us are going to make this on our own. You've got to ask for help.

HATCH: Only every day - you know, that's the beauty of the lessons that I have is you don't really get anywhere. I didn't get to sit here and talk to you because I just had this - you know, people use the word resilience. That's a very individual trait. And so I kind of disagree with it. You know, I'm here because people helped me out, and I just want to carry that kind of message as I walk around.

KELLY: Yeah. Are you living in the dorms?

HATCH: I am not living in the dorms because I think the Yale faculty understand that as a 52-year-old guy, I go to bed about 9:30, and I get up really early. And the kids, unfortunately, they don't live by that schedule. So I've rented a small apartment above a garage, and it's great.

KELLY: Yeah. So what's - is there a big milestone coming up next in terms - do you have - I mean, I guess you don't even have your eye on midterms yet or anything. But what are you eyeing?

HATCH: Well, there is. Actually, there's a - I'm going to have a paper due next week, my first paper. And I'm hoping that they're OK with me doing it in crayon, but I doubt that that's going to be the case.

KELLY: You must have a laptop, come on.

HATCH: Oh, I do. But, you know, we have to write at our level, don't we?

KELLY: (Laughter) Well, I wish you luck on your paper and everything else that this first year has in store for you.

HATCH: Thanks. I'm on my way to a class right now. So thanks, Mary Louise. I really appreciate your time. And again, thanks for having me on.

KELLY: What class are you on the way to?

HATCH: Literature.

KELLY: Literature, all right; well, enjoy.

HATCH: We're going to discuss the "Iliad," which pisses me off, but I have to get through it.

KELLY: (Laughter) Why? Why's it piss you off?

HATCH: Because it makes - kind of it gives - I think it gives the reader an unrealistic view of war and honor and things like that. But, you know, I'm just figuring it out. So I think it's OK. I'm wrestling with it, as they like to say here. And the wrestling isn't really fun.

KELLY: Are you going to voice some of that? I would have loved to have heard...

HATCH: Yeah, yeah.

KELLY: ...That perspective in a seminar on the "Iliad."

HATCH: Yeah, I am. To their credit, you know, the faculty has been keen on that. You know, they ask me to, you know, add to the discussion. So I think that's maybe part of the reason that I'm here...

KELLY: Yeah.

HATCH: ...Is that I have lived some of these things, so...

KELLY: Well, have a good class. And...

HATCH: Thank you.

KELLY: ...It's been great to speak with you.

HATCH: Likewise. Take care.

KELLY: That's James Hatch, a former Navy SEAL who just started Yale as a 52-year-old freshman.


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