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A former Navy SEAL went to college at 52. His insight led to a new class

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.

Learn more:

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

[Copyright 2023 NPR]

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