Ex­or­cis­ing THE DEMONS

U.S. army vet’s strug­gles res­onate across bor­ders

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Joseph Hnatiuk

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,


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