'Demon Camp': A revealing look at the torment of a war veteran

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What if you left the war, but the war never left you? In her first book, author Jennifer Percy gives us the true story of a young American and his painful journey to the killing fields of Afghanistan and back. It's the story of a wounded soul.

Caleb Daniels, our real-life protagonist, drops out of high school in rural Missouri and leaves behind an unhappy childhood, a dead-end job and a faithless girlfriend. He's always dreamed of war. It's going to save him. He joins the U.S. Army. His girlfriend follows him; reluctantly, he marries her. Eventually, in 2001, Caleb makes it into the Night Stalkers, a special operations outfit. His wife is now pregnant. Then, Sept. 11 comes.

By Jennifer Percy
Scribner ($26).

Within weeks, Caleb is fighting in Afghanistan. He's a machine gunner on a Chinook called the Evil Empire. The unit's motto is "Death Waits in the Dark." They fly low and at night, brushing the treetops, dropping special forces teams from ropes.

Caleb is allowed to come home for his daughter's birth. Then he is back in Afghanistan. He lives through fire fights and explosions. He sees friends and enemies die. He does two tours in Iraq, eight in Afghanistan. His wife delivers another child, a son. The marriage breaks up.

He starts having dreams foreshadowing death. It's 2005. Caleb is in Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan, beneath the towering Hindu Kush. The mission is Operation Red Wings. The goal is to kill or capture Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. Caleb's outfit inserts a Navy SEAL team on fast ropes. Things go awry. (I won't spoil the new Mark Wahlberg film "Lone Survivor" about the SEAL team by telling more here.)

Caleb is booted off the rescue Chinook by a superior; he has no choice but to watch as his friends leave him in the rotor swirl. A Taliban RPG brings the big chopper down, with all aboard lost; it's a disaster, the worst for the Special Forces in the Afghanistan war to that point.

When Caleb's enlistment is up, he brings the remains of his best buddy, Kip Jacoby, home. His suffering is just beginning.

Ms. Percy tells us about Caleb's dreams, his nightmares, his struggles with the demon he calls the Black Thing, the Destroyer. The author is introduced to Caleb, and follows him to a Christian exorcism camp in Georgia. The sessions that follow introduce us to a cast of veterans and exorcists and to a series of encounters that are bizarre and haunting.

"Demon Camp" relates Caleb's struggle and trauma in a choppy and urgent tone that helps convey the disorder and torment of his psyche. Ms. Percy takes us inside his mind and exposes the raw reality of pain and loss. Many of us have read and heard about the post-traumatic stress disorder that afflicts so many of our returning heroes. But few of us have been able to glimpse anything but the very surface of it. Ms. Percy has lifted the veil for us, a little bit.

David Wecht is a judge of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. These are his views and are not offered on behalf of the court.

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