Psych doc, embedded

Mark Staal ’91


Spring 2011

At 18, Mark Staal ’91 knew his attraction to the Marine Corps was a high school infatuation, so instead of enlisting, he enrolled at Calvin. 

But nine years later, finishing his PhD in clinical psychology, he decided to revisit that attraction. Unsatisfied with his internships in typical health care settings, he approached his wife, Laura Vander Heide Staal ’92, about trying a military internship. 

“I made a compelling argument based on the salary, the benefits and the training,” Staal said, “but in hindsight, I think the G.I. Joe from my childhood wanted to have an adventure—maybe even do something a little dangerous.” 

Staal has had more than a little adventure and danger as an Air Force psychologist, especially since 2004, when further training qualified him to be a special operations psychologist. Of the 230 psychologists serving as commissioned officers in the Air Force, only half a dozen are assigned to Special Forces—small units given the most dangerous missions. 

When he’s at Fort Bragg, N.C., Staal helps screen and train airmen who have volunteered to be in special operations. “It’s very rigorous training,” he said. “They’re going to be in highly complex, dynamic situations. Part of what I do is help them with strategies for assessing risk and making quick decisions.” 

He’s been through some of the same rigorous training— airborne jump school, tactical shooting and driving schools, and training that simulates capture by the enemy, including food and sleep deprivation and high-intensity interrogation. Besides helping him, as a psychologist, viscerally understand the pressures special forces endure, Staal said the intense training also earns him “bona fides” with the men. 

“Then, when I’m embedded with a unit, I don’t stick out as the shrink. While I’m not one of them, I’m not perceived as an outsider, either.” 

That, Staal continued, reduces the stigma of talking to a psychologist. “Because these are the kind of guys that, if they have a problem, aren’t going to traipse over to the clinic and say, ‘Hi, I’m this incredibly capable, resilient stud, and now I need a psych doc to shrink my brain.’” 

In actuality, because Special Forces are so hardy and resilient, once in a combat theater, they don’t often require mental health care, Staal said. “I’m mostly there to respond as a human performance specialist— asking how they’re managing energy and anxiety, for example—so they can do their job as a highly tuned weapons system. 

“Still,” he went on, “because their highly dangerous missions expose them to the refiner’s fire more often, they’re not immune to mental health problems. In fact, the danger bonds them so fiercely that losing a brother is especially stressful for them.” 

When one of them is killed, Staal helps provide “a pause” for the troops to face their loss. “You don’t want to pathologize with a lot of psycho-babble a situation that’s really just a normal reaction to an abnormal event,” he said. 

He acknowledges that as war drags on—he has been deployed nine times to Iraq and Afghanistan—abnormal reactions, from full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder to suicide, are becoming more frequent. 

But from his psychologist’s perspective, Staal is convinced, “There is a wave of good news coming from this war. We’re looking at a generation that’s made huge sacrifices, that’s been willing to step up to the plate unlike any since ‘The Greatest Generation’ of WWII. They will be the future leaders of our country.”