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Former SEAL injured in combat opens up about battling depression in book “Touching the Dragon”

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Jimmy Hatch no longer wanted to live.

It was May 2010. The former Navy SEAL had been shot in the leg during an attempt to rescue Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan the year before, and fell into a deep state of depression after the life he had known as an elite warrior on a close-knit team came to an end.

Hatch had to learn to walk again and to deal with excruciating pain that made him plead with doctors to amputate. He wondered what his purpose was in life, if he wasn’t hunting down bad guys as a member of the Virginia Beach-based Naval Special Warfare Development Group, frequently referred to as SEAL Team 6.

He was overwhelmed with guilt that a military working dog named Remco was shot and killed on that mission, and also felt that he jeopardized his teammates’ safety by screaming in pain and needing to be rescued. He felt like a failure.

One night in his Norfolk home, Hatch decided he was ready for all of the pain to stop. He stood over garbage cans in his backyard so he wouldn’t make a mess while taking his own life.

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“I didn’t want to be alive any more. I was high on meds, drunk on booze, and had a loaded pistol in my mouth,” Hatch wrote in a memoir that will be released today.

But Hatch’s wife, Kelley, snatched the gun from his hands, and later knocked a knife away from him before Norfolk police and members from his unit arrived at his home. They took him to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth for mental health treatment that was just the beginning of his long road to recovery that involved the support of his wife, former SEAL teammates, civilian doctors and therapists, volunteers and others.

Hatch details those painful experiences in his book “Touching the Dragon and Other Techniques for Surviving Life’s Wars,” which he hopes will help others who struggle with mental health problems. Touching the dragon is a reference to a form of therapy he underwent, where he confronted the memories that haunted him the most.

“I don’t feel worried about people judging me for having mental weakness,” Hatch said. “I’m just, I always felt like I was a bit of a fraud. Like I kind of got lucky getting through training, and I kind of got lucky to go on these missions with these people.

“And I don’t know what that was called, impostor syndrome, or some other thing, but that’s what I’m worried about. Like that people will assume I’m this tough guy that I’m not. Or that I’m trying in some way to say that I’m this badass, and that’s just not it. I worry about that. I’m not worried about people saying, ‘Gosh, he was messed up,’ because that’s the honest truth.”

While Hatch goes into great detail about what happened the night he was shot trying to rescue Bergdahl, as well as other missions in Iraq and Bosnia, the heart of the book focuses on the mental health challenges he faced once he was back and got off what he calls “the speeding train.”

“A lot of people want to read tough guy [BS], you know, invincible superheroes. … But it’s just not the way it is,” Hatch said in an interview at the same house where he threatened to take his life. “Almost everybody I know struggles in one way or another. Certainly, they’re not as dramatic about it as I am. But you know, I got tagged, I got hurt, and it twisted me up pretty good, so I felt like it’s important to talk about.”

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Hatch frequently talks about the darkness he endured and his path to recovery with military personnel, police and firefighters – people who are often afraid to acknowledge their own struggles. Giving those talks and hearing from those who said he helped them by sharing his story helped Hatch realize he still had value. If a SEAL could acknowledge needing help, they could, too.

He has dedicated himself to help working dogs as a way to pay back a debt he says he owes to those who repeatedly saved his life while sacrificing their own. His charity, Spike’s K9 Fund, works to provide medical care, ballistic vests and other equipment for dogs who serve their communities and country.

The charity is named after a dog who died in Iraq after an insurgent fell on top of him. Hatch shot the insurgent, but the bullet went through his body and killed Spike.

Hatch was devastated by the loss of the dog, who had previously saved his life. In a house largely devoid of reminders of his military career, Hatch keeps Spike’s harness and carries his ashes with him in an amulet.

“He goes everywhere with me like a guardian angel or whatever. I think this does two things. One, it helps me remember him. … And, two, it helps remind me that I’m not a badass, for sure.”

Hatch said profits from the sale of his book will help the charity named in Spike’s honor.

He knows there’s a potential for backlash from other SEALs who have been frustrated by people profiting from their stories. Hatch said he’s prepared to take the criticism because he feels it’s important to tell his story and the stories of the heroes he served with.

He also notes that he doesn’t use the word SEAL in the book. It’s not mentioned on the cover, and there is no image of the familiar trident that SEALs wear. Instead, Hatch acknowledges, he was a part of naval special warfare unit and refers to himself as an “action man” rather than a SEAL.

“I felt like it was important to tell a good story, the truth, and let it stand on its own merits, as opposed to some Navy SEAL chest-beater stuff that is really just kind of at least, maybe, a half-truth,” he said.

Hatch said he was uncomfortable with the description of his book on Amazon provided by his editor, which highlights his SEAL career, because he was concerned it sounded like he was bragging. He relented after she explained to him that she was the one writing it and that he wasn’t doing any bragging.

“I understand that in order for people to get the story, they need to be interested in buying the book,” he said.

Originally, Hatch said he was frustrated the book didn’t come out last year, about the same time as Bergdahl’s court-martial because he thought it would reach more people then. But he ultimately agreed with his editor that he didn’t want his story attached to Bergdahl, which is mostly referenced in the book’s beginning.

The book discusses the anger he felt toward Bergdahl, especially after seeing Bergdahl’s parents with President Barack Obama in the Rose Garden when he was released, but it doesn’t include his thoughts on testifying at Bergdahl’s court-martial last year or the sentence he received.

“They asked me, even before the trial, what would you like to see happen? And I just said I think the most important thing is that he gets a dishonorable discharge, you know, because that’s a life sentence, and you know he made the choice that he made to split,” he said.

Bergdahl did receive a dishonorable discharge, but he avoided prison time. Hatch said he was glad about the dishonorable discharge, but was frustrated Bergdahl was able to walk away from court.

“I guess what I finally came to was, look, man, I can be pissed off or I can move on, because I don’t have any control over that stuff,” he said. “The judge saw what he saw. He struck me as a pretty freaking straightforward guy. … Hopefully that’s what needed to happen.”

While the Bergdahl trial was difficult to prepare for and go through, he relied on the same people as he had with his past struggles.

In many ways, the book is a tribute to the people who were stubborn enough to make sure Hatch received the help he needed and a call to action for others to do the same when they spot someone struggling. He says he’d like to replace the word “stigma” with “cowardly” when referring to why people don’t seek help or offer it, and “resilience” with “courage” for those who do.

The key is for people to love each other, he said. And that’s something he believes everyone is capable of, even him.

“Sometimes it’s hard to think that we can be that person, but even the guy with the impostor feelings, I know there are times when I’m a strong person and I can help somebody.”

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© 2018 Virginian-Pilot

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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