Exorcising THE DEMONS
U.S. army vet’s struggles resonate across borders
CALEB Daniels sees dead people. A former helicopter machine-gunner, Daniels also converses with a demon he alternately calls The Black Thing or The Destroyer. These things are as real to him as the helicopter crash in 2005 in Afghanistan that killed his best friend and claimed a total of 16 lives. Caleb is the main focus of this chilling but true account about American army veterans who returned home safely from tours of duty, only to succumb to debilitating symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Demon Camp is Jennifer Percy’s first book, but it shows why this talented young writer from rural Oregon has won accolades for her work in the New York Times and Atlantic Review, and why she also holds a Capote Fellowship. Some names have been changed to reflect biblical times (Caleb’s wife is named Eden, for example), part of an ingenious plan to address the topic of military suicide by interacting with veterans who seek to reconcile faith and trauma. This also softens (or, at times, heightens) the sense of foreboding readers experience as Percy leads them to an eventual understanding of how depression creates imaginary entities. Caleb’s assessment of his own precarious existence is profoundly simple: “They spent millions training me how to go to war but they never taught me how to come home.” A young woman named April, who owns a tattoo shop next to a marine army base in Florida, grieves for her brother Brian, a former army mechanic who began talking to angels in 2007 after his tour of duty ended. When asked what led to his suicide, she responds tersely, “He killed himself here, bbut he died in Iraq.” Percy’s writing style is raw, terse aand often flirts with the surreal. Best described as jagged lyricism, Percy’s sentences reflect the instability of her subjects. “It kind of had an attitude to it, you know.... So I chase its little ass down the road.... You know that shack next to the trailer? It made a left and went tthrough the wall.” Percy reminds readers that military ssuicides are rarely acknowledged in official fofficial White House recognitions of the brave men and women who fight and die for their country. She further discloses that in 2008, it was only after the head of Veterans Affairs was fired that CBS News acknowledged the frequency of military suicides. Her candid and probing questions to veterans and their loved ones is the book’s primary strength. They reveal a porous border between reality and imagination that depressed veterans routinely cross as they look to escape from haunting scenes of blood and gore. The book’s title comes from a religious retreat in Portal, Ga., where demons are reputedly exorcised by the minister of a nondescript church called the Covenant Bible Institute. Caleb invites other veterans here, hoping they can all experience deliverance from evil while he pursues his pitifully unrealistic dream of building a huge factory where he hopes mentally-damaged veterans can repair military vehicles and sell them for profit. Percy’s observations show that the exorcism process is supervised, not surprisingly, by a host of other lost souls who, at best, can provide veterans with only temporary relief. Demon Camp was written for an American audience, but some recent events show why it should also resonate with Canadian readers. During one week last month, four Canadian soldiers killed themselves, acts of desperation that prompted Gov. Gen. David Johnston to mention this disturbing trend during his Christmas address to the nation. Readers will be challenged to remember that the book is not fictional, if only because Percy’s characters and her descriptions of their demons would be more fitting for a Stephen King hairraiser. This book should be a work of fiction but it isn’t, and more’s the pity, for as Percy succinctly concludes, the history of PTSD can be summarized in one word — denial, “specifically of the reality of war and its effect on the human psyche.”
Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher in Winnipeg.
Demon Camp A Soldier’s Exorcism By Jennifer Percy Scribner, 220 pages,