One day during eighth-grade football practice, Jack Mattingly “took a step back” and dislocated his knee.
What happened next felt like a bigger, more painful step back. The X-rays showed Mattingly didn’t really have a kneecap, or at least what most people have in the way of a round covering of bone over their knee joint. The diagnosis: “small patella syndrome.” The congenital bone disease is hereditary—Mattingly’s brother had been diagnosed with it in early childhood—and affects a small number of people in the world.
“Only like 50 people have it,” Mattingly said matter-of-factly in a recent interview. The 20-year-old freshman is majoring in psychology at the University of Arizona and wants to eventually earn a master’s degree in forensic psychology.
“There’s nothing you can do to fix it,” he said of his condition. “You can’t get better, so you get used to it and learn to live with the pain as part of life.”
First Lessons in the Importance of Mental Health
After the X-rays, there were the visits to specialists, surgeries, and hospital stays, as well as Mattingly’s first lessons in the importance of mental health. As one of the older patients at Shriners Children’s Hospital, he quickly saw that many of the other younger patients were “physically worse off … Some of them were born without legs … despite all of that, there was always a smile on their face.”
That taught Mattingly that “whatever cards you’re handed, you determine how you act; nobody can determine your character except you.” He shared similar insights in his application essay when he wrote that “you are only as strong as you believe yourself to be”—and that “you have to put your mental health first.”
What It Took to Live with and Overcome His Condition
What was it like to be so young having to adjust to life with a chronic, lifelong disease? And what did it take to overcome the condition?
It was “hard at the time” to find out about his diagnosis, Mattingly said. Eighth grade was “prime time for sports and friends in athletics.”
He was also told that he would be limited in what he could do and that he couldn’t expect to do all the same things that others without his disease could.
But Mattingly “took that in a different way … It made me push harder for certain things.” Mattingly joined wrestling. He did jujutsu. He continued to “lift weights, stay healthy, and be on top of things … It took perseverance and dedication to become better and stronger.”
When he was told he couldn’t run, Mattingly ran.
In other words, rather than take the naysayer messages at face value, Mattingly viewed them as a challenge—an opportunity to test the limits of what he could achieve and ultimately transcend them.
Hearing what you can’t do, in Mattingly’s case, “kind of inspires you to go do it … It’s my life, and I want to see what I can do. I’ve always wanted to do whatever the hardest thing is.”
Joining the Army and Training as a Behavioral Health Specialist
Joining the Army was one example of this stubborn tenacity in the face of “no” to go do “the hardest thing.”
“The hardest thing in the military is infantry training,” Mattingly said. “I want to push myself.”
More than one person told Mattingly he’d probably not be accepted because of his physical condition. Friends and loved ones were “supportive but were saying, ‘Be prepared for a no.’”
Mattingly continued six months of basic training anyway as part of an active-duty infantry unit. At the very end of that training period, Mattingly switched jobs after being reclassed because of his knees. He was given three job options: physical therapy specialist, nurse, or behavioral health specialist. (In each case, he’d also be an enlisted soldier working in a clinic.)
Studies in the Army Behavioral Health Program
After Mattingly decided to become a behavioral health specialist, the next step was to train for the job. That meant taking a 17-week course that largely consisted of learning about behavioral health from classroom instructors in the Navy, Army, and Air Force.
Mattingly flourished in his studies and went on to make the Dean’s list for earning a GPA of 92% or higher. He drew a lot of inspiration from the main class instructor, whose passion for raising awareness about mental health was both admirable and contagious.
The Realization That “Not Enough Light Shed on Mental Health”
Meanwhile, it was impossible not to notice that of the 400 members of Mattingly’s infantry class, only 21 were studying behavioral health. “What really struck me,” he said, “was there’s not much light shed on mental health.”
What a Behavioral Health Specialist Does
At the end of his training in Texas, Mattingly went on to serve as a behavioral health specialist at Fort Riley base in Kansas. Here is how he described that work:
The typical day is intake interviews and counseling … You sit down with the patient and make smart goals … and you’re also a friend to talk with … You don’t diagnose, but you take whatever you’ve gathered from that intake interview and give your top three hunches on a diagnosis to the psychologist in charge.
“Essentially, you’re doing a lot of the work of a civilian therapist but for soldiers and their families,” Mattingly added.
The experience was rewarding enough to send Mattingly back to school for further study in psychology: “I enjoyed what I was doing as a behavioral health specialist, but wanted to do more and gain more knowledge,” he said.
Life After College and Plans for the Future
Mattingly anticipates graduating in 2026 with a B.A. in psychology and hopes to continue his studies at the University of Arizona at the graduate level. (The University of Arizona’s psychology program is one of the best in the state.)
Originally from Evansville, Indiana, Mattingly has managed to work and live in eight states before the age of 20. Much of that nomadic itinerary can be attributed to his time in the military.
What would he like to do after college? “There are a couple things I’d like to do, one of them more realistic and the other more of a dream. I’d like to work as a forensic psychologist or work with the FBI in psychology or as a special agent.”
Whichever path he takes, Mattingly will be advancing the cause of mental health and shedding light on its profound importance. And, just as he sought help for a physical condition, he hopes more people can take pride in seeking help for mental health issues. It’s an “accomplishment,” he wrote in his essay—and as someone who gravitates to trying and mastering “hard things,” he would know.