With focus on healing, ex-Navy SEAL James Hatch’s memoir upends macho cliches

SHARE With focus on healing, ex-Navy SEAL James Hatch’s memoir upends macho cliches

Retired Navy SEAL James Hatch, seen with his walking cane in New York, is the author of “Touching the Dragon: And Other Techniques for Surviving Life’s Wars.” | AP

Retired Navy SEAL James Hatch was adamant about avoiding action cliches in “Touching the Dragon: And Other Techniques for Surviving Life’s Wars” (Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95), a memoir that offers wrenching detail on mental and physical wounds that nearly drove him to suicide.

Hatch’s book never even uses the term Navy SEAL — an approach solidified during a conversation with a fellow commando embarrassed by its ubiquity in books and movies.

“I didn’t want to use it either,” Hatch says in an interview. “I wanted the story to be able to stand on its own.”

The title refers to a technique Hatch learned in a psychiatric hospital after his wife encountered him at home with a gun in his mouth. The approach involved writing, over and over, about the night that he suffered a career-ending wound while searching for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who walked off his post in Afghanistan.


That written recollection sets the stage for Hatch’s reflection on how commandos fighting abroad cope with returning to civilian life and, as Hatch writes, “shoulder the darkness that accompanies such work.”

Hatch endured 18 surgeries to fix skin and bone mangled by an enemy bullet. He struggled with dark thoughts about his missions.

In the book, he explains the purpose of writing about what troubled him: “You hate yourself for flawed reasons. So expose them. When you face it, the dragon you think is going to incinerate you, doesn’t.”

Hatch was among a handful of searchers whose wounds were used as evidence at the politically charged sentencing for Bergdahl, who pleaded guilty to deserting and endangering fellow service members. Bergdahl received a dishonorable discharge but no prison time.

“I did not see the evidence that the judge saw. I don’t know what happened to Sgt. Bergdahl after he was captured,” Hatch says. “I’m at peace because he got a dishonorable discharge, and that’s a life sentence.”

“Touching the Dragon” by James Hatch.

“Touching the Dragon” by James Hatch.

The book makes judicious use of combat imagery. A seven-page description of a nighttime Afghanistan mission ends without gunfire, but Hatch notes how civilians’ horrified expressions struck him.

At the book’s core are descriptions of how his wife and fellow service members kept his recovery on track.

“I could not deny that people cared for me,” Hatch says. “And that said everything I needed really.”

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