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Fighting the Inner Demon

Why are some veterans turning to exorcism to cope with PTSD?

For Caleb Daniels, it all began in 2005 when a Chinook helicopter crashed during a rescue mission in a remote region of Afghanistan. Though Daniels had been meant to be on that mission, he had not been present when eight members of his unit, including his best friend Kip Jacoby, had died. The survivor guilt would haunt him for years afterward.

Shortly after receiving word of the deaths and even with his return to his home in Savannah, Georgia, Daniels was haunted by horrifying dreams of Kip and the other casualities. The nightmares of their burned bodies staring at him nightly became so intense that he considered suicide. Even worse, he became convinced that a shadowy figure that he called a "Destroyer demon" was punishing him for "killing and living."  Though the visitations had many of the earmarks of hypnagogia, Daniels became convinced that the nightly visitor was an actual demon. Most often this "Destroyer" took the form of a 6-foot 5-inch buffalo with horns that appeared to contain all the souls of his dead friends.

Though diagnosed with PTSD, Daniels found no real relief in the treatment options available to him. Desperate for a cure, he took the advice of a fellow veteran and decided to try for "deliverance" at a religious retreat centre focusing on treating trauma through exorcism and prayer. The newly-released book, Demon Camp: A Soldier's Exorcism, by author Jennifer Percy describes Caleb Daniels's strange odyssey of attempting to get help by literallly exorcising his inner demons. In researching the book, Perry spent time with Daniels and other soldiers seeking relief from their symptoms through exorcism and the kind of help being offered to them.

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Evangelist groups have had a checkered history of dealing with PTSD, including prominent evangelists who have recently gone on record as saying that "good Christians can't get PTSD." For many religious groups, prayer alone is the only valid way of treating mental illness.  A 2008 survey by Baylor university Matthew Stanford showed that 36 percent of mentally ill churchgoers are told that their illness is caused by sin while 34 percent are told that it is caused by demonic possession.   

As a result, many churchgoers with psychiatric symptoms find themselves "shunned" by their fellow churchgoers and even their pastors. It has also led to the rise of evangelical camps offering a very different approach for dealing with mental illness.

Run by Tim and Katie Mather, a husband and wife ministry, Bear Creek Ranch Retreat Center is located in Portal, Georgia. According to their website, the  Center offers a range of religious experiences and "wholeness coaching" including 3-day weekend retreats. The Center's philosophy is based on Luke 4:18 "The Spirit of the Lord is on me,  because he has anointed me  to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free". With a special focus on people suffering from traumatic experiences, the weekend retreats are capped at fifteen persons each and requires all candidates to be interviewed before being allowed to participate. The Mathers report having conducted more than 5,000 exorcisms, many involving veterans.

During the weekend, all participants receive food, housing, a "demon-fighting workbook", and a 30-minute exorcism conducted by Tim Mather. According to the Mathers, "people are in bondage to a pattern of sin. Trauma is the doorway through which demons can pass.”  

During the retreat, exorcisms are carried out on willing participants such as Caleb Daniels in prepared places such as local churches or abandoned buildings. After a session of worship, the exorcisms are conducted with the possessee being surrounded by other participants in folding chairs who describe their visions. According to Jennifer Percy, Caleb Daniel's exorcism involved having different people describing their vision of him being tortured by his Destroyer demon.  

Surrounded by the faithful, Daniels reported that he “felt a burning sore rip open on the back of his neck. It felt as if the flesh was coming off and something was being pulled up his spine toward the burning.” After his exorcism was over, the minister told him, "Caleb, you have a reason to live."    

The experience was riveting enough to convince Caleb Daniels that he needed to help other traumatized veterans receive exorcisms the way that he did. With an estimated 20 percent of the 2.6 million veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from symptoms of PTSD, finding new candidates for the Mathers' special brand of religious treatment was not difficult. According to Percy's book, Daniels later reported bringing hundreds of veterans to the retreat center and that the Mathers told him that they had "met" more than 400 demons as a result of his efforts. 

But Daniels has since cut all ties with the Mathers and their retreat center and ruefully admitted to Percy that "They messed up my friends…they get in your head."  Despite his optimism, he continues to experience PTSD symptoms and his own brutal memories of deployment. “You think Afghanistan is scary? You think a f – - – ing IED is scary? Rockets? Dead guys everywhere? It’s nothing compared to this war. This war is much, much worse,” he reported in Percy's book.

While Jennifer Percy speculates that the exorcism experience may act as a form of exposure therapy which some people might find beneficial, her book raises more questions than can be comfortably answered about the lengths some soldiers will go to in order to rid themselves of their trauma symptoms. Percy, who underwent exorcism herself as part of her three-year exploration of the shadowy world of trauma exorcism, often crosses the line between journalist and participant in describing her experiences.   

Still, Demon Camp is a disturbing look at one soldier's search for help in dealing with his trauma issues and the often bizarre solutions offered to them. This is especially true for well-meaning spiritual counselors who insist that dealing with inner demons can be a sign of possession.   Although Tim and Katie Mather have gone on record as denouncing Percy's book as "creative embellishment,"  their camp remains open and still gets more referrals than they can handle.

 For more information

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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