Portal Jennifer Percy was just a young graduate student researching PTSD. But the closer she got to understanding the inner workings of one soldier's trauma, the more she lost her own footing in reality.



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Jennifer Percy was just a young graduate student researching PTSD. But the closer she got to understanding the inner workings of one soldier's trauma, the more she lost her own footing in reality.


OK. So it's happened to me. Once, it crept like an instinct, a silent whisper not to open a door. I am so grateful I did not open that door. Some things you can't un-see. Another time, a random whim to drive a different path home enabled me to give someone aid. These decisions, allowing an indefinable tug to pull you out of your routine, to break normalcy, can change everything. Today, on SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR, we're going to dive deep. SNAP JUDGMENT proudly presents "Omen," amazing stories from real people deciding whether to follow the signs, whatever those signs may be. Please, change your cell phone settings to do not disturb because you're listening to SNAP JUDGMENT.

Now, this is the "Omen" episode. So in case you've got some kids in the back seat, know that our first storyteller, Jennifer Percy, was a young graduate student when she decided to explore a phenomenon completely outside her realm of experience, PTSD in war veterans. As such, Jen walks through some very dark events and discretion is advised. Don't worry. We lighten the load later in the show. And some names have been changed in this piece. You'll soon understand why. SNAP JUDGMENT.

JENNIFER PERCY: I was living in Iowa when one of the first suicides of the war happened. And the kid shot himself not far from where I was living. He locked himself in a truck and shot himself, and his mother was watching. And that suicide really jolted me. And I started reading more and more about what was being called a suicide epidemic at the time. I actually called the mother of the son and tried to talk to her about posttraumatic stress disorder. And she said, you can't actually write about this and understand it until you've been all the way to the bottom of hell and crawled your way back. And there was really no way to respond to that. So I wanted to get to know someone who had come back from the war and what it was like to live in their mind. I wanted to write something experiential where I could recreate the movements and digressions and internal workings of what they were thinking and what's going on. So I met Caleb by luck. And I read an article in a small newspaper in Georgia about a soldier starting a company that would help suicidal veterans. And I thought I would go talk to this guy.

NANCY LOPEZ, BYLINE: For a year, Jen had been reaching out to veterans to interview for her master's thesis. But nobody wanted to talk. So she emailed this guy Caleb one day. His response was quick and in that first email told her more than she expected. When he was on tour in Afghanistan, six of his men died in a helicopter crash. It was a mission he was supposed to be on, but his superior pulled him out at the very last minute. He came home feeling guilty and convinced that he, too, should have died in that crash. Jen made hotel arrangements, gassed up her Jeep and drove 13 hours south to Georgia to meet Caleb in person.

PERCY: He had told me he was completely recovered. We were at a restaurant called Mi Casa, a Mexican restaurant. Very quickly, he started saying that the questions I was asking weren't really important. What was important was the fact that this big, black thing that was coming into his room at night was not a result of a mental illness, was not due to the war necessarily and the way we understand it, but rather a demon that was following him. And what was important for me to know was that all the veterans committing suicide were actually being pursued by the same demon.

LOPEZ: Sometimes, Caleb called it the demon, the black thing or the destroyer. He described it as an evil and shape-shifting force, intent on harming not just him and not just veterans, but everyone.

PERCY: It was a little bit shocking to kind of - and at the time, you know, I was a grad student. I had never interviewed anyone before in this way. So I didn't have that much experience, you know, interviewing, let alone a special ops soldier with posttraumatic stress disorder.

LOPEZ: Then, Caleb went on to describe the cure he'd found for coping with these demons.

PERCY: He mentioned an exorcism camp in rural Ga., in a town called Portal.

LOPEZ: Caleb said he went to this exorcism camp, and the exorcism got rid of his demons. He'd never felt better. In fact, ever since, he'd been bringing other veterans to the exorcism camp to go through what the minister there calls deliverance, where they're effectively freed of all the demons that stalk them.

PERCY: I initially wanted to just get out of there, actually. He scared me a little bit. I ended up calling my brother and just saying, yeah, this guy's a little bit weird. And he sees demons. And I was like, I think I want to go home. I wasn't sure how to make sense of, you know, a guy bringing veterans to exorcisms.

LOPEZ: But her brother convinced her to keep an open mind. So Jen stuck with her project, and for the next three months, she met with Caleb regularly at Mi Casa, the Mexican restaurant. She would ask him questions about his past, about what led him to enlist. But pretty soon, Caleb started deflecting the spotlight to her, asking Jen questions about her own childhood, about what made her sad, what kept her up at night.

PERCY: And suddenly, he's, like, drawing pictures and making a chart sort of of different things I've said. Like, if I was scared of the dark, he would, like, make a little box and write that in it. And then, if I was having trouble with my boyfriend at the time, he made a little box and did that. So he's doing all this, like, strange work on napkins and stuff at the Mexican restaurant. And I kind of, you know, didn't really want to be part of the story. So I kept saying, OK, I really don't have any trauma like your trauma. I'm interested in what happened to you in Afghanistan. Can you focus on that?

LOPEZ: It was frustrating for Jen. But at the same time, she was intrigued. In a way, Caleb was giving her what she wanted, an insight into his mind. And it was clear that the war had followed him home.

PERCY: He started talking about, you know, the first time that the black thing came to visit him. The way he talked about it was terrifying. He was gesticulating, standing up. His eyes looked watery. He spoke in this really deep voice when he imitated the black thing. He said it was 6' 5", and it was so tall it had to lean down to get through the door. And then, it said it was going to kill him if he proceeded with whatever sort of journey he was on. He talked about his dead buddies, like, their charred bodies coming into his room at night and how they would try to fight off the black thing. He would, for example, see 146, the number 146, everywhere. And 146 was the tail number of the Chinook that crashed in Afghanistan where all his friends died, the Chinook that he luckily stepped off of, before it took off, by circumstance. And he follows that number everywhere. He sees it on license plates. He got a lotto ticket with that number. And the more he talked about 146, the more I started to see 146 everywhere. It's still haunting to turn around one day and see 146 flashing at you on the clock or to wake up at night and see it or to find the pattern somewhere, you know, on a flight number or, you know. So in a way, I was sort of taking on the mindset of this guy. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed and trapped in it. And so, you know, there was definitely a point down the line where I started to get really, really annoyed at Caleb.

LOPEZ: And why were you annoyed?

PERCY: Because he would never stop accusing me of - like he did with everyone - of having a demon.

LOPEZ: By now, Jen had been following Caleb around for a year. And she wanted to talk to other veterans and their families, see how their trauma manifested itself. She made plans to go to North Carolina and visit April, the sister of Brian, a veteran who was so haunted by the ghost of the Iraqi men he killed that he ultimately shot himself. But when Jen told Caleb about her trip...

PERCY: He completely freaked out and said if I talk to her, I'm pretty much screwed. And the destroyer is going to come after me, that it would follow me home, that it would start to attack me. And it just sounded like crazy talk to me.

LOPEZ: It was clear to Jen that other veterans were also experiencing haunting apparitions. And she wasn't going to let Caleb's superstitions, which, frankly, is what she considered them to be, stop her from doing her work. She went to North Carolina and stayed with April for a week. She slept on her couch and heard incredibly sad stories about her brother. April saw him talk to ghosts. She even bought him a trailer because he wanted somewhere to hide. His fears of impending doom were so contagious that April would also get scared.

PERCY: She was sort of swearing at the government. She was talking about how people had been following her. She was clearly still in this wake of grief. So I felt like I was just sort of taking in as much of that as possible and carrying it with me. Her story is worse so because she wasn't the one who had been to war, or more poignant, even, than Caleb's because, you know, look at how it's - the trauma's moving from one person to the other, how it affects whole families.

LOPEZ: So when Jen walked away from April's house, she felt like she was still inside her world. And she couldn't shake that feeling off.

PERCY: That night, when I stayed in a hotel, I was terrified. I kept going outside. I was alone. And April's stories are swimming in my head. I wake up and I see this giant bat hanging on the wall. It's about the size of a man. And it just comes over and flies on top of me, sits - sits on top of my chest, wraps its wings around me, sticks its claw in my neck and just stays there all night. And then I wake up. I mean, at this point, it's just a nightmare. But the fact that, you know, it took place in the - like, there was - the line between dream and reality was very small because the setting was the same. And so it was hard to sort of move away from that image of the bat. And then, I just - I get in my car, and I drive to Portal.

LOPEZ: This is where the exorcisms are held. Portal is a small, desolate-looking town with one crumbly, dirt road and one blinking streetlight. Usually, the exorcisms take place inside the minister's trailer, other times, at an abandoned Pizza Hut down the street. Jen had been here a few times before. She had gotten to know the minister and his followers. And now she wanted to talk to a woman who called herself the son of Jesus.

PERCY: She was living in a house full of women because all the men were gone at war. Some of them were soldiers. Some of them were contractors. I told her about this nightmare I'd had. Yeah, I can tell it's, like, following you around. This isn't good. She tells me to sit down on the floor or sit down on a couch. And she surrounds me along with her daughter and some other people that were at the house. And they start giving me this impromptu exorcism. And they would touch me on the shoulder and start talking to Jesus and God. And, you know, they would have certain phrases from the Bible they would recite. And it was a lot of repetition. Their eyes are closed. They're whispering. And they're all saying, you know, what they think it is. They started asking it to leave and focusing on that. And that's when I sort of felt like I was falling into hysteria, almost as if my body were just sort of now - sort of like a marionette. And they were just moving me. And I just sort of felt a weight taken off my back and just sort of something being removed. What was strange about that moment is that I felt something physically come out of my body. And that moment, more than any moment, made me viscerally feel like I was inside of their world. I did feel better. And at the same time, I felt worse because I felt like something had worked, which is not what I was looking for.

LOPEZ: Had you ever imagined that you would have succumbed to that?

PERCY: No. I guess I didn't - I didn't imagine that that would happen at all. I imagined being completely resistant to anything they said. So when I got home, some weird stuff started happening after. I woke up in the middle of the night, and there was a bat circling over my head - a real bat. And it landed on me. I don't know if it bit me. But I went and got a rabies shot anyway, as you're supposed to do. There are quite a few bats in Iowa. But I had never seen one before this. The one time it happened, actually, when I was - I thought maybe it was just the house. But then, I was subletting from a friend for the summer. They were gone. And I was actually writing, and a bat comes into the office, sort of circling my head. I killed the bat with a tennis racket. Another time, I was at my brother's house. And I woke up - they had never had bats. I woke up, and there was a bat - a dead bat - outside the window. I mean, it was just never leaving me alone I felt like. And so I was going completely - I mean, it felt like I was going crazy. And other stuff was happening. I was waking up every night at 1:46 in the morning. I played the exorcism tape. I had taped the entire deliverance session and played it in my kitchen. And the power went out right when I, you know, turned it on. I was in this state where the possibility of being followed around by your dead friends felt very real now. And that's a scary place to be but also kind of where I wanted to end up. The problem is you don't really know how to get back out.

LOPEZ: So Jen went deeper. She did a mental recall of everything Caleb told her about demons and how they operate, about how they move from one person to the next.

PERCY: He calls me one day; I really think you should come to Mo. and talk to me. It was about a four-hour drive from where I was. So I thought, OK. So it was sort of a release to just go back and say why is this happening to me? What have you done to me? You know, we go to a coffee shop. He sits me down. And he's kind of like, I think there's this giant bat following you around. And I was like, wait; I didn't tell you about the bat. What are you talking about? I hadn't really told him anything that was going on. How does he know about this bat? It was just this really creepy moment. He kind of got me riled up to the point where I was sort of in a panic. You know, and part of it was the setting, the way he talks. It was - we were outside.

It was getting dark. The power went out again. He was saying, oh, that means they're here. And then there'd be a long silence. Who's here? He's like, the whole army is here. Army of who? The army of the demonic. What does that mean? They're after you. I see them coming in right now. They're surrounding us. And so it's just this invisible world that you don't see but he sees. And you can see him seeing it. And that was the moment where I realized, OK. This has - this has got to be the end of it because he's, you know, not on the same wavelength as I am at all anymore. And then, I just - I, you know - the next morning I drove home. And I didn't see him again. There's a moment in one of Hemingway's stories. There's a soldier. And he's in a trench. Because he's close to dying, he suddenly converts and prays to God. Once it's over, he's embarrassed. He doesn't want to think about that anymore. So for me, I'm sort of constantly wavering between belief and unbelief because I don't think there's ever going to be sort of an explanation that's suitable or comfortable. It's actually comforting to have that mystery there and alive. I was actually on a sort of vacation with my parents in Eastern Ore. We had gone on a boat trip down the Snake River. And we found this, like, dead bat hanging from a fishing line. And that was the last bat I saw, actually.

WASHINGTON: There is so much more to Jennifer Percy's story. We'll have a link to her book, "Demon Camp," about this very experience on our website, snapjudgment.org ORG. And if you know someone suffering from PTSD, let's make sure they know they do not have to suffer alone. Go to woundedwarriorproject.org for more information. That story's produced by Nancy Lopez with sound design by Pat Mesiti-Miller.

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