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Navy SEAL channeled injury, despair into helping dogs

Asset or liability. Former Navy SEAL Jimmy Hatch has been both. CNN’s Anderson Cooper chronicled his “war-hero” exploits publicizing Spike’s K9 Fund, but the Virginian spoke candidly at Southwestern Michigan College about darker baggage stuffed in a metaphorical “backpack” during “combat” here and abroad. Hatch, “the only SEAL who didn’t shoot bin Laden,” previewed “The Fly Fisherman” and “The Mechanic,” who appear in his book, which Alfred A. Knopf publishes in June. Hatch talked twice Sept. 14 on “Adventures in Learning: The Hard Way” to students and the community. His almost 26-year career ended with a 2009 leg injury trying to rescue alleged deserter Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

His career took him to Kenya, Yugoslavian ethnic cleansing, South America, the Middle East, Senegal, Europe, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia.

Hatch, 50, scheduled to testify at Bergdahl’s October trial, said, “I knew we’d get him when we got the chance because he’s American. He has a mother who doesn’t deserve to see him get his head chopped off on YouTube. We had enough intelligence to make the juice worth the squeeze. I’d do it again.”

“RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) look like fiery Nerf footballs. Hostage rescue missions are most difficult because it’s an away game. The enemy holds all the cards. They can kill the hostage at any moment,” Hatch said, recalling Remco’s death from AK-47 rounds to the head.

“I saw the muzzle flash which flipped the dog backwards,” said Hatch, then “my femur blew out the back of my leg.” He began screaming. “I was worse than useless, a gunfight spectator. A few seconds earlier I was a tough guy.”

The dog handler’s non-profit charity has helped protect 379 law enforcement canines across the country, fitting them with bulletproof vests, and paying for medical treatment to help them return to work or live healthy retirements.

Spike died Dec. 23, 2006, during an Iraq mission to halt importation of child suicide bombers from Syria.

“Spike bit a guy in the chest who fell on him. I started putting rounds into him. One bullet went through the guy, into the dog,” Hatch said. “Spike was my best friend. Dogs do not understand bullets. It’s our job to protect them when we bring them into crazy wars. That was a very big deal because clearly, I failed. I had to go to work the next day, so I put it in my backpack.”

In 2005, Hatch participated in the mission which became “Lone Survivor,” the Mark Wahlberg movie.

“I can’t imagine how people sat in a theatre eating popcorn,” Hatch said. “I can’t watch that movie. It went in my backpack, too. I did three deployments in Iraq and was on my third in Afghanistan.”

Helping canines filled Hatch with purpose. His goal is 500 by year’s end, including Dowagiac Police Department’s Tole, among an estimated 25,000 active dogs.

Hatch grew up in Utah reading Call of the Wild, Where the Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller, wrote Delta Force’s Charlie Beckwith in high school and joined the service at 17 seeking a stable family.

He left SEAL training during “Hell Week” — “a poor choice. The Navy decided I needed to develop character, so sent me to a ship, which is like jail, except you can drown. I made it through SEAL training the second time. I learned you’re either an asset or a liability. Circumstances beyond your control can make you a liability. Complete strangers, friends and family helped me become an asset again. That’s the crux of my story.”

Hatch flew from Germany to Bethesda Naval Hospital with limbless, gauze-wrapped torsos breathing by machine, sheepish he felt sorry for himself.

Women from Sheridan, Montana, made a quilt he still cherishes.

A thirtyish woman in group therapy recounted her Christmas Eve rape at 11 by two uncles in front of her father.

“I felt like I got kicked in the chest by a horse,” Hatch said. “She’s fighting like Mike Tyson to get past this. You don’t have to go to war to have problems. I volunteered to do a job I loved with people I loved and got shot in the leg. What does she think every year when someone wishes Merry Christmas? She never knew, but she saved me.”

“Lying in the hospital in the dark, looking at the ceiling, I can no longer be with my crew or do what I did my whole life.”

Long-suppressed memories tumbled from his backpack.

“You don’t have to get shot in a gunfight for that to happen. When I got home, I started washing pills down with (vodka), getting more depressed and isolated. One night I stuck a gun in my mouth in front of my wife. Let’s be honest. I know how to use a gun. If I wanted to be dead, I’d be dead. It was a pathetic cry for help.”

Hatch spent time in a psychiatric ward padding around in purple pajamas with a washcloth-sized towel so he couldn’t hang himself.

Buddies brought skydiving magazines confiscated for containing staples.

 “If you think I need staples to kill everyone, you’re crazy!” Hatch erupted. “Don’t ever threaten psych ward staff. After I got back on track I helped people through similar troubles. You think you’re the first to ever go through it, but probably not. All my tough training didn’t help fighting myself. Forgiving yourself is the hardest. I liked killing people who deserved it in a tight brotherhood. There are no agendas in a gunfight except to kill them before they kill you.”

War is “complicated,” he said. “I don’t believe in nation-building, taking U.S. blood and treasure and creating huge footprints in other countries that have been around for centuries and telling them how to live. We should pull all Americans out of the Middle East and support locals whose daughters are in school. That’s the only litmus test. That would change that part of the world. We should take money we spend dropping bombs and spend it on refugees.”

“Life is combat! You don’t have to go through war overseas. Combat happens in small towns and in families. We need to be there for each other. Never underestimate your ability to set other people’s lives on a different course and get back to being an asset. My buddies took a pathetic guy who didn’t think he was worth anything and put him in position to put bulletproof vests on dogs. Two calming cops came to my house, ladies made my quilt, doctors put my leg back together. All strangers! We’re Americans. It’s what we do.”

SMC President Dr. David Mathews wanted to bring Hatch to the Dowagiac campus since hearing him speak last spring at an Ohio skydiving safety event.