I met Sergeant Caleb Daniels in a parking lot oﬀ Lake Allatoona in Georgia three years after Kip Jacoby’s death.
The sky was desolate warm and white. A dock frothed with roped-up boats and water licked the sand, leaving a rim of yellow, glistening foam. It was quiet for summer, no growling motors or tires breaking over gravel, just the sound of a slow breeze. A bird wetted its beak in the stomach of a dead squirrel.
When I arrived Caleb wasn’t there—nobody was. He showed up thirty minutes late, driving a burgundy Chevrolet with rust-eaten sides, wearing a button-up shirt, one-hundred-ﬁfty-dollar jeans, and cowboy boots with a two-inch lift. His stubble sparkled like bits of sand. Six-foot-one. Sideburns thick as duct tape. Everything about him was pale but for his hair, which was black and oiled so that its blackness shined. Nowhere longer than a ﬁngernail. He spit chew on the pavement and it steamed.
Over the phone Caleb told me he planned to buy abandoned factories across Georgia and hire a veterans-only workforce to rebuild old combat vehicles for humanitarian and civilian use; turning the waste products of war into something that would give life instead of destroy it. The veterans would have work if they needed work. They’d have a community if they needed a community. The proﬁts would feed into suicide counseling programs for soldiers, which, I later found out, was a Christian exorcism camp. Caleb would run it. There was a small news clip about him in the Statesboro Herald.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “I’ve been dead ever since I left Iraq.”
The factory he wanted to buy stood alone in the center of a ﬁeld in southeast Georgia. It was a drab metal thing made grand by the space around it. He’d been building things all his life, unfinished things, trying to make them whole. Caleb relished it, the lives he’d save, the days breaking back, hauling trucks, orchestrating the rise of steel beams. Already he carried notebooks and blueprints; drove a truck with a six-cylinder engine. At night, in his dreams, he saw the vehicles he wanted to build and he gave them names: Brute, Savage, Aggressor. He befriended a broker in Kennesaw, a large bald man named Buck, and convinced Buck to help him write a business proposal for the company. They determined a start-up cost of two and a half million dollars.
It was 2008, and the head of mental health at the Department of Veterans Aﬀairs, Dr. Ira Katz, was caught withholding statistics on veteran suicide from the public. CBS had just begun an investigation into the numbers, and learned Katz sent an e-mail to his media adviser with the subject line “Not for the CBS News Interview Request.” He wrote that there were a thousand suicide attempts per month within the VA. He wrote Shh!
“The research is ongoing,” he wrote CBS. “There is no epidemic in suicide in the VA, but suicide is a major problem.”
Army specialist Timothy Israel, who had been awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded by a roadside bomb, hung himself with the drawstring of his pants in a jail cell in Elwood, Indiana.
Russell Dwyer, a former platoon sergeant and cavalry scout instructor at Fort Knox, shot his wife in the head in their front yard in Colorado Springs, and then he lay down beside her and shot himself. She was facedown, he chose faceup.
Lieutenant Corporal Jeﬀrey Lucey, who served in a company responsible for transporting Iraqi prisoners of war, hanged himself with a garden hose in the cellar of his family’s home.
Private First Class Stephen S. Sherwood, a veteran of the casualty-heavy battle for Ramadi, shot his wife ﬁve times in the head and neck with a pistol, then took a shotgun to his own head.
Sergeant Lisa Morales said, in an interview in the New York Times, that she reenlisted because she wanted to go back to Iraq so that the Iraqis would shoot her for what she’d done.
In March 2006 Private Walter Rollo Smith, a Marine Corps reservist who’d marched to Baghdad in the ﬁrst invasion returned home to his twin duplex in Tooele, Utah, made love to the mother of his children, washed her in the bath, pushed her head underwater to rinse out the soap, and held it there gently until she died. When I called Private Smith’s attorney to see if I could visit Smith in jail, the attorney said I could not. “Everyone already knows he’s suﬀering from PTSD.”
“That’s not very nice, to pick up a piece of someone and give it back to their family, is it? I think that would freak them out.”
Around eighteen veterans were killing themselves every day. Caleb was eager to tell his story, but most were not. The ﬁrst person I called was the mother of Joshua Omvig, whose son is considered the ﬁrst suicide of the Iraq war. She had a home in Grundy Center, Iowa, half an hour from where I lived, in a spread of quiet cornﬁelds. Specialist Joshua Omvig of the 339th MP Company shot himself in December 2005, three days before Christmas. What happened was he handed his mother a suicide note that she thought was a Christmas list. She set it aside. She’d look at it later. There were dishes to be done. She returned to the sink and started washing. Joshua was in his bedroom, changing into his uniform, the one he wore on an eleven-month deployment in Iraq. When he was fully dressed, Joshua walked past his mother and headed outside. The suicide note was still unread. Still on the counter. Joshua climbed into the family truck, locked all the doors, pulled out the 9mm he’d stashed in the glove compartment, and brought it to his head. Joshua’s mother was reading the note. She ran outside, arms ﬂailing, and stopped beside the passenger window. He angled the gun just slightly so he wouldn’t kill his mother. He was twenty-three years old. “You don’t understand,” he said. “I’ve been dead ever since I left Iraq.”
Two years after Joshua’s suicide I called his mother. She didn’t want to talk to me. She had this quiz she gave all the newspaper guys before she let them ask her questions. I told her I wasn’t a newspaper guy. She said it didn’t matter. What’s post-traumatic stress? What’s happening to the brain? She wanted medical terms, and scientiﬁc reasoning, and I gave her the answers I knew. She said to go read the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and get back to her. The DSM is the oﬃcial handbook of mental illness and disorder in the United States. In terms of treatment, nothing’s a disorder unless the DSM says it’s a disorder. I had in fact read the DSM’s classification criteria for post-traumatic stress and what I knew was that the DSM revises its definition of war-related trauma in every edition, and has been revising it since its ﬁrst installment. It wasn’t until 1980, in DSM-III, that the term post-traumatic stress disorder appeared as an operational diagnosis. To be diagnosed with PTSD, one must have experienced a traumatic event, and DSM-III defines a traumatic event as one outside the range of usual human experience. The DSM does not define usual human experience.
I said I was very sorry for what happened to her son. The mother paused and then asked whether I’d fallen all the way to the bottom of hell and stayed for a while and then come back to earth again. She said that unless you’ve been to the bottom of hell and come back you couldn’t understand young Joshua’s blood splattering on the windshield anyway.
When I called a woman named April Somdahl, the half sister of twenty-six-year-old Sergeant Brian Rand, a marine who believed he was being followed night after night by the ghost of the Iraqi man he’d killed, she told me a story about the day Brian was in Iraq and she was in North Carolina and they were talking on Yahoo! Chat and Brian said he needed April’s advice. He said there was a guy out in the sand, and he’d been out there for hours and he wouldn’t come inside.
“Well, what’s he doing?”
Brian sent his buddy Chris out to check on the guy. When Chris returned, he stood in the middle of the room and stared at the ﬂoor.
“So what’d he say?”
“Remember those people in the convoy that blew up earlier today?” Chris said. “Well, they blew up into billions of pieces. He’s looking for them because he thinks he needs to collect a fragment of their body to take home and give to their family.”
“Bring him inside,” April said. “I’ll talk to him.”
Chris brought the soldier inside. He sat him down in front of the computer.
I wanted to talk to veterans and the families of veterans for the same reason that many were telling me I could not talk to them. That as soon as we say words like PTSD or trauma we have permission to ignore the problem because we think we understand it.
“Hi, hey,” April said. “How you doing? I’m out here in North Carolina—”
“—BILLIONS OF PIECES! Billions and billions and billions. I gotta ﬁnd one.”
“Now listen,” April said. “That’s not very nice, to pick up a piece of someone and give it back to their family, is it? I think that would freak them out.”
“No, no. They have to have a piece of them. I just need one little piece. It could be anything.”
“Those men are dead,” April said. “You’re not going to bring them back. The families will have a funeral for them. If you bring a piece of their bodies back to their families you could hurt them. You don’t want to hurt them, do you?”
The soldier said nothing.
“Are you going home soon?”
“Billions of pieces! Billions of pieces! Billions and billions and billions and billions. Billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions and billions.”
He kept saying it, billions and billions, over and over.
“Please stop,” April said.
The soldier stopped.
“There may be billions of pieces of them all over the earth, but do you know those pieces will sink into the earth and they will form new soil or even fossils and they will become part of the world again? That was only their bodies. Their souls had already passed on into heaven. They are probably looking down on you right now, thinking how crazy you are.”
The soldier said nothing.
“I’ll tell you what: when I die, you can take my body and throw it over my neighbor’s fence.”
“Really?” he said.
At the end of the phone conversation with April, she had asked, “Was that PTSD?”
Caleb knew a guy in a town called Dalton selling boat parts. “Consider this,” he told me. “Once I asked my marine buddy Max to come help me ﬁx vehicles. He didn’t want to meet me. He was on his way to drill. But I convinced him anyway. Guess what? The guys he was gonna ride with got stuck behind a Greyhound, and a big bus tire ﬂew oﬀ and smashed their window. They ended up in the ditch.” The way he told it, he was a kind of talisman against death.
I left my car in the parking lot and stepped into Caleb’s truck. Tobacco dust lined every inch of it. The worn leather scratched my thighs. Caleb looked a bit feverish. At the same time, on the edge of recovery.
We drove with open windows, feeling the air. He looked at me and sniﬀed. “You drove all the way down here to talk to me,” he said. “Why?” He had one hand on the steering wheel and one hand on his thigh. “There were other writers that came to talk to me,” he said. “People that wanted to know about me and my guys. But I didn’t like them.”
A long ﬁnger pointed to my head. “You’ll do.”
At the time I thought he was just surprised that anyone cared. He’d been trying to get people to care for a long time.
“By the way,” he said, “you religious?”
I hesitated long enough for him to ﬁll his mouth with a fresh wad of chew. I didn’t want the conversation to come down to this.
“It’s hard to tell the difference at first between angels and demons, but over time you learn.”
Finally I told him I wasn’t.
“Good,” he said.
He sat quietly, just blinking, but everything inside him seemed to churn.
In Dalton, Caleb stopped the truck and disappeared into a building that looked coughed up by the earth. He returned engineless. “Wrong store,” he said, and slipped into the truck.
“So I don’t read the Bible that good,” he said. We turned onto a dirt road. “But there’s a hierarchy of angels, you know that, right? They have ranks just like the military has ranks. It’s hard to tell the difference at ﬁrst between angels and demons, but over time you learn.”
“I thought you weren’t religious.”
“Spiritual,” he said. “There’s a diﬀerence.” Caleb sucked his lips under his teeth. “I hate religion. I think religious people are worse than people who hate God. Religious means, ‘I read my Bible and I go to church every Sunday and I do this and I do that and the good Lord does this.’ You see. They believe in God but only because their daddy told them to believe.”
He started to move around in his seat as if there were a weasel in his pants.
“What’s happening,” I said.
“Hang on,” he said. Caleb stuck his hand out the window. “I’m getting something.” His eyeballs rolled and he sat straight-backed like an antenna picking up waves from somewhere far away.
“What is it? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Wasn’t real clear.” He twitched like a ﬂy-bothered horse. “Sometimes I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll have to stop. A text message from God kinda thing.”
“Intuition,” I said.
“Call it whatever you want.”
I wrote sees future in my notebook.
I asked if he knew any other veterans that were seeing their dead buddies. “My friend Valarie,” he said. “She makes dinner for her dead husband every night.” He whistled and tapped the steering wheel. “But you might have some trouble getting her to talk about it. A lot of guys have a hard time talking about it. They see PTSD, like you say, as when you go back and you experience those memories. I’d say for the majority of guys, they can’t ﬁgure out what it is.” He scratched his sideburns and cracked his neck by taking both hands oﬀ the wheel.
He didn’t want to talk about Special Forces or ragheads or Saddam. He didn’t want to talk about his buddy who got his skull blown off and how he had to duct- tape it back on, “brains and all.” Or about Fluffy, that cat he peeled and ate dead off the side of the road, “still soft and cat-looking.”
We drove on until the land turned from vine-gnarled to barren, and towns bloomed with a stark suddenness into neon strip malls and restaurants with names like Chin Chin China, and a Hummer dealership where a purple ape balloon waved its hand below an American ﬂag so heavy it could hardly lift itself.
“Think about a girl that gets raped,” he said. “It’s the day-to-day things that start it back up for the raped girl. Like someone holding her wrist, and that’s when the emotions rise up. But see out there, it’s so big and so traumatic that you don’t even have time to deal with it, you can’t process it, your brain can’t process it.” He spread his arms wide and his knuckles clacked the windshield. “The world is just kinda shit for about twenty minutes and then it’s over. It’s mostly just reacting and then you think about it years later when you’re home.”
He kept glancing at me with large, almond-shaped eyes that blinked heavily as if always in a state of waking. They were canine blue and rimmed with black lashes. “In the beginning,” he said, “I refused to believe I had a handicap—that it was PTSD. I didn’t want it to be PTSD. PTSD means you’re an outcast. It means you’re the crazy one. I probably had PTSD, but there’s always the inﬂuence of the demonic.”
Then I knew that God was just a word he used to talk about other things.
“It’s something that a lot of people aren’t going to want to hear about. Some people aren’t going to believe it at all. But I think it will change how they understand PTSD.”
Caleb told me a story about his ex-wife, Allyson. “While I was deployed,” he said, “the dog got pregnant and miscarried. The miscarried puppies were in a pile on the ﬂoor and Allyson had to call me in Iraq to ask what to do. I told her to put the dead dogs in the
trash, but she wouldn’t do it. When I got home, the dead dogs were still in the house.”
He took his fork to his plate. He covered his mouth to swallow.
“That’s the kind of shit I had to come home to,” he said.
Not the ﬁrst time I wondered whether Caleb was remembering what the war made him see.
When I asked Caleb about his missions, he formed his Copenhagen snuﬀ into a ﬁne ball and told me he didn’t want to talk about Special Forces or ragheads or Saddam. He didn’t want to talk about his buddy who got his skull blown oﬀ and how he had to duct-tape it back on, “brains and all.” Or about Fluﬀy, that cat he peeled and ate dead oﬀ the side of the road, “still soft and cat- looking.” He didn’t want to talk about mistaking water balloons for grenades or those women with AKs. He wanted to talk about the day his entire unit died, how he thought he heard their falling, burning voices from a desk in an empty room at headquarters. He wanted to talk about how his ex-wife called him a murderer and then made him take out the trash. He wanted to talk about his friend Valarie who made dinner for her dead husband every night. He wanted to talk about how all of it was still there, every day, the blood in his mouth, the screaming, his dead buddies. He wanted to talk about after the war.
“When I got home three years ago,” Caleb said, “I’d have this thing come visit me in the middle of the night. You could hear it coming down the hallway.” He stood up in the booth, hunched his shoulders, and started walking apishly in place. Boom, he said, slapping the table. Boom. A few customers turned their heads.
“This thing,” he told me, “a big dark ﬁgure, opened my door. It was so tall it had to lean down to get its head through. In this really deep voice it said, I will kill you if you proceed. It sounded almost like it wanted an answer back from me, and so I started laughing at it and I said, ‘You’ve got to be face-fucking me.’”
The customer across from us got up to leave. Caleb ﬁnished his Coke and spit his chew into the empty cup.
“But it came back every night. One time I’m sitting in my room and it walks in, shuts the door, and comes after me. It starts to choke me. I’m physically choking. My dead buddy Kip comes in and wrestles it oﬀ me. But Kip isn’t stronger than this thing either so it chokes him too. Kip was taking the punishment for me. I’m watching this and I’m freaking out.”
“Punishment for what?” I asked.
“For killing,” he said, “and for living.”
The air conditioner groaned and strings of dust swirled in the rushed, grated air. Caleb turned sideways, leaned his back against the wall, and rested his legs on the booth.
I asked if he’d ever gone to the VA for help and he said he waited in line for two days and came home chewing painkillers.
“A hundred and forty vets are dead every week because of shit like this. The VA doesn’t do anything. I’m pushing the verge of crazy to save these guys.” He put a napkin to his mouth, and his hands folded into its curves. The white looked clean against his skin. “I was one of the best-trained soldiers in the army. They spent millions training me how to go to war, but they never taught me how to come home.”
I dug an article out of my purse that I’d been carrying around about a twenty-six-year-old soldier named Sergeant Brian Rand who shot himself after being followed night after night by the ghost of the Iraqi man he’d killed. I’d talked to his sister April on the phone and intended to drive to North Carolina for an interview after I spoke to Caleb.
“This thing,” he said, “this big, black thing—it can come after anyone. It can come after you and kill you and it will destroy you. It’s no joke.”
Brian had been stationed at a Fallujah checkpoint with his buddy Chris. The guys were bored. Not much had happened that day until a white van started coming up the road toward them, picking up speed. Sergeant Rand turned to Chris and asked him what he thought they should do. Chris replied, “Shoot him, I guess.” Brian shot him.
The dead Iraqi man came to North Carolina and choked Brian while he slept and demanded an apology for the killing.
He told April. She said do whatever the Iraqi man said to do. Brian apologized but the dead man wouldn’t listen. Join me on the other side, the man said.
Caleb read the article slowly, scrunched it into a ball, and threw it at me.
“This is the same thing that visited me.” He pointed his ﬁnger at it. “Everything,” he said. “From how it’s talking to him. To how his friends think he’s talking to himself. To how he thinks he needs to die. I’ve heard the story thousands of times. It’s no diﬀerent than mine. A lot of guys I’ve worked with would never get this out of them. Never. You talk about this and you’ll lose your career. You’ll never go back to combat. You’re the crazy guy. Your wife won’t believe you.”
“You don’t think hallucinations are a part of PTSD?” I asked.
Caleb switched the chew from one side of his mouth to the other. He looked to the side, waved to the waitress.
“I know this is gonna sound crazy to you,” he said, leaning forward, getting close to my face, “but this isn’t PTSD.”
The room was full of the smell of grease, the sound of air conditioning. I watched him chew, the way his jaw muscles ﬂexed to the size of walnuts. He wiped sauce from his teeth.
“This thing,” he said, “this big, black thing—it can come after anyone. It can come after you and kill you and it will try to destroy you. It’s no joke.”
The Black Thing.
He said it does not represent anything and that it’s like nothing we know here in this world. He said it’s not a metaphor because there are no metaphors for this kind of evil. It was shadow. It was death. It was the gathered souls of all his dead friends.
“Do you know when it’s coming?” I said.
He put his hands out on either side of him, palms ﬂat as if he were trapped inside a box. “I’ll be in a room just like this one,” he said, “and all at once the windows will go dark. And then the Black Thing just sort of seeps in.”
Caleb and Krissy ended their relationship. She couldn’t take all the waking up at night, all the talking to Kip and the Black Thing, or the way they wrestled.
Caleb didn’t own much, a few suitcases and a toolbox. He carried a piece of the blown-up chopper with him, salvaged from the Hindu Kush. A black rectangle, printed with the words Evil Empire in white letters. He’d kept it in the garage.
An old friend, an army guy named Ryan living near Atlanta, rented a room to Caleb for cheap. They’d known each other since seventh grade.
Ryan deployed to Iraq and Caleb stayed home. Aimless and unemployed and consumed by memories of the dead soldiers, most days he spent on the couch, watching television and drinking beer with Ryan’s stepfather, a Lakota Indian named Wombly.
Wombly was a big guy with loose black hair that fanned his breasts. One day Wombly raised his beer in the air and said, “Who’s that dead guy that keeps following you around?”
It was the ﬁrst time anybody had seen Kip. Caleb thought Kip was just PTSD. “You see him too?” Caleb said.
Wombly sucked beer from the rim of his can. The ghosts annoyed him, ﬂoating around the television. “And who’s that handsome boy?”
He described Major Reich’s blue eyes, the wedding ring. Al Gore’s mustache. Sergeant First Class Muralles. Master Sergeant Tre Ponder. All of them.
Wombly invited Caleb to a sweat lodge in the woods. There were other Indians there and they all sat naked together in the steam, seeing spirits and getting visions. Caleb saw dead soldiers in the smoke. He saw old Indian warriors. The buﬀalo god Tatanka. Wombly believed Caleb had special powers and oﬀered to train him to become a medicine man.
Caleb agreed. His skin took on the smell of cedar plank and wood smoke. He stayed for months, memorized the names of healing plants: wormwood, horsemint, skunk cabbage. The names of gods: Gnas and Han and Etu.
Men and women visited Wombly at the sweat lodge, pleading for help. A lady came with arthritis in her legs and Caleb watched one of Wombly’s friends pray over her, and as he prayed, the arthritis went into him, into his ﬁngers, and his ﬁngers twisted like gnarled wood. He had to get them amputated. Wombly trained Caleb about ancient cures, lost spirits, and displaced souls. He taught Caleb how to bridge the human and the spiritual realms.
When Caleb ﬁnished training he thought he’d found a way to control the Black Thing. For two weeks, he thought it was gone.
The Black Thing said I will kill you if you proceed.
But it returned. Caleb remembered what Wombly taught him. He said stop and it stopped. Caleb said be still and it was still. Caleb said now stop choking Kip and it stopped choking Kip.
When he told the story, he said he told the Black Thing, “You expect me to fear you? Do you have any idea what I have been through in my life? Your big black ass does not oﬀend me coming here, in my house. You’re not going to scare me. Get the fuck out
of my house.” And it left.
Around this time Caleb started getting his hair cut at a one-room barbershop in Kennesaw from a Baptist named Sophie. She was the kind of hairdresser who talked while Caleb listened. Sophie told Caleb about how a tree branch ripped right through her bedroom window. Caleb oﬀered up his own room. Told Sophie he’d stay in a hotel. She moved in right away. Caleb would be there during the day, usually in the garage, ﬁxing up the car on a rolling board near the cement where it was cool. One of these days Sophie came up to him while he was lying on his back covered in oil. “If you just want to fool around sometime and have sex,” she said, “we can. No strings attached.” Caleb said it doesn’t work that way but they had sex anyway and then they started dating.
One night, with arms wrapped around Sophie’s small frame, Caleb woke. The moon was near his window. Its light spilled across the ﬂoor like a veil. Sophie’s long black hair looked like an oily slick on which her head ﬂoated. She put her feet together so that one foot rested in the arch of the other and her hands clasped as if in prayer beneath her chin.
The Black Thing said I will kill you if you proceed.
Then Caleb just started laughing. He told the Black Thing— whatever it was, he still didn’t know if it was in his head, or if it was real, or if he was going crazy—he said, “No you won’t, asshole, because I’m going to do it myself.” He grabbed his 9mm, loaded it up. “I’m done,” he said. “I’m checking out. I don’t ﬁt in this world.”
He was back on the tarmac hearing Kip’s promise of death.
Caleb told God he couldn’t take it anymore. “I’ve hung in. I’ve done everything I’ve known to do.” He got his gun and drove to a hotel. He pressed the muzzle to his temple. “Now, God, if you’re there and I have a purpose in my life, by the count of three, you
better stop me. If you’re that powerful, then you better give me a reason to be alive. You better stop me.”
Caleb started counting.
“If you’re that powerful, God, then you better give me a reason to be alive. You better stop me.”
And on two the phone rang. It was 1:46 in the morning. On the line was his ﬁshing buddy Marshall. His wife was going into labor and he needed Caleb’s help.
He drove to the hospital. His saliva still tasted like metal when the baby came.
Excerpted from Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism by Jennifer Percy. Copyright (c) 2014 by Jennifer Percy. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.