Several years ago, when newspapers were just announcing a "suicide epidemic" among soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Jennifer Percy—who grew up in Central Oregon, and whose brother Benjamin Percy is also an acclaimed author (Red Moon)—began to wonder how one survives in the aftermath of such deep personal trauma, forever haunted by it. Thus began her journey into the dark and tragic world that many of those who serve our country return to.
Her book, Demon Camp: A Soldier's Exorcism, follows Caleb Daniels, the lone survivor of a Special Ops team who were killed on a rescue mission in Afghanistan. Having returned to the United States and living in Georgia, Daniels is particularly devastated by the loss of his best friend, Kip Jacoby, and plagued by visions of his ghost and other terrifying nightmares. He considers and attempts suicide multiple times, his personal relationships suffer, and he loses hope that he can ever live a normal life. It's not until he falls in with a backwater religious group, who believes that demons are responsible for Caleb's struggles, that he changes perspective and begins to find a purpose in life again.
In this gripping account of her time with Caleb, the religious leaders of the "Demon Camp" and other veterans, Percy reveals almost nothing about herself, nor what brought her to the story. Instead, she relinquishes the narrative to nearly blow-by-blow accounts, both unbelievable and heartbreakingly real, allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the story. What might come off as outrageous (the author herself undergoes an exorcism), is handled deftly, unfolding as simple scenes without fuss. The result is an incredibly even-handed reporting of the ruin soldiers bring back with them from the battlefield. We are allowed both perspectives: for Caleb, these demons are all too literal—horned, scaly and straight from hell; to the careful reader, they are a physical manifestation of the unspeakable and incomprehensible terror of human existence.
Researching a cult has its problems; they are, after all, trying to brainwash you. And although Percy's experience inside the "Demon Camp" is told with professional distance and clear observations, the last few chapters become lulling and dreamlike. Straightforward scenes become quite lyrical, the language of faith standing in for an alternative language of war. The final scene is as beautiful as it is disturbing.
This is not a book about the ways in which our health care system is or isn't equipped to help American veterans. It's not about social policy, or the systemic gaps between veteran and civilian services. While these issues are certainly implied, Demon Camp concerns itself with the contemplation of trauma and loss, and the means by which we are willing to go to be delivered from it. Percy's unique writing style—sentence fragments, strange juxtapositions and loosely connected sentences—aren't for everyone. However, the language is stunning, and these images will stick with you for a very long time.