Story and photos by Elaine Anne Watt
As a Naval Special Warfare Operator, James “Jimmy” Hatch faced innumerable combat situations in Iraq, Bosnia, Africa and lastly Afghanistan, but his greatest challenge came after he was severely wounded as part of his SEAL Team’s attempt to rescue Pvt. Bowe Bergdahl, a rogue soldier who was captured by Al Qaida and Taliban militants after deserting his post.
The eloquence with which Hatch describes the ordeal of losing his identity as a man of action and purpose, no longer a part of the only group where he felt he belonged and had value, and strangely enough, the place where he felt the most peace, in his autobiographical book, “Touching the Dragon,” is deeply moving. It’s a work of heroic proportions for his honesty in addressing the battles faced by many of our warriors when they return to a society that has become alien to them.
Co-written with his friend Christian D’Andrea, this book powerfully peels back the layers of Hatch’s psyche to help others recognize that it takes courage to ask for the help needed to confront one’s demons and tame them, and to accept that it is an ongoing process that is never really over. Just as excelling at war takes tools, mental health requires constant vigilance and effort equivalent to the physical training our bodies need to remain in optimum condition. And, it can’t be done alone.
We begin to understand Hatch’s story in the pages of the introduction where he first describes what being a part of an elite special operations team was like:
“We were good at what we did. Surrounded by a lot of violence, we experienced clean, shining edges of time, where skill, brotherhood, trust, and purpose all melded into something that I can only describe with the word ‘pure.’”
At an intimate gathering the week of the book’s launch in mid-May, Hatch spoke of the effect of his early life experiences making him “very familiar with violence and instilling a strong desire [in him] to punish people who were violent and bad to innocent people.”
Over time, that mindset helped him be most effective “in spite of the extremities and alienation of war,” not only to be able to perform his missions, but to be at peace in the midst of gunfights where the only failure would be “not being there in the moment to take care of your crew.”
Then came the fateful Bergdahl rescue mission where his life was saved first by his beloved canine partner, Remco, and then by his dogged crewmembers who managed to stabilize his mangled leg long enough to get him a helo out of the firefight and on to a long tortuous physical and mental recovery.
The depths of his despair, the anguish of mind and body, “the front-row seat to the human spirit” that he could see in “rare moments of clarity” as his team of healthcare professionals, his wife and friends fought to protect him from suicidal ideations to once again feel that he had value and a reason for living, resonates with each page.
“I couldn’t have done this [book] with anyone else but Christian,” said Hatch at the aforementioned reception. “When you find someone who works harder than you, then you better hang onto them; that’s Christian. He wouldn’t let me out for food until we’d gotten through whatever part of the story we were working on.”
When asked what the hardest part of writing the book was, Hatch said simply and sincerely, “only all of it.” He was most pleased that so far the questions he’s received from journalists and others have been about the mental health issues instead of the exploits of combat. As he stated in the book: “Killing is ugly. And because it is, I have a serious problem with the glorification of violence. With the elevation of macho bullshit. And with the video-game-ification of war.”
What he most hoped to be asked about was whether he believes that we can improve the transparency needed to address mental health in this country. His answer was a resounding, “yes.”
“Only through taking care of each other, loving each other—and you can find many specific examples of this in faiths around the world—will we get there,” he said.
Appropriately, the last question asked by guests at the reception was whether Hatch believes our country is still worth defending when so many people seem disassociated from what we are doing in the world.
Hatch said that, “even though it’s never been tougher to be in law enforcement, with cops having to try to do their jobs with one hand tied behind their backs,” our country deserves to be protected and honored for “first, its ideals; second, the ability for individuals to do the best they can for themselves and their families; third, the ability to have a Constitution and to change it when needed; and fourth, when we have horrors in the world, who has been the one to answer the call?”
Hatch and D’Andrea expressed their hope that “Touching the Dragon” will encourage everyone who may be suffering despair or trauma to break their silence, in a society where they should not fear repercussions or judgments, and ask for the help they need and be receptive to the healing power of love. ML
“Touching the Dragon and other Techniques for Surviving Life’s Wars,” by James Hatch and Christian D’Andrea, Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher. Hatch founded Spike’s K-9 Fund, a charitable organization, to honor and protect working K-9s. For more information see www.spikesk9fund.org or call 757-406-8614.