Jose Belen is years removed from the war, but the war isn't removed from him.
Every so often, in the most mundane of moments, his mind strays back to the dust-filled, mangled hell that was Iraq in the mid-2000s. He can hear the hysterical yelling, a back and forth of English and Arabic, then the gunfire. He can feel his feet running toward a car, where the family had been. He can see the young brothers in the backseat, their arms draped around each other in a protective hug, blood seeping out of exit wounds in their backs, where the gunshots had caught them with one fatal sweep.
They were gone.
But she wasn't – their little sister, next to them in her beautiful white dress. She was alive, barely. Her deep brown eyes were open. She had taken a shot to the head.
Belen can remember racing toward the U.S. Army's medical tent with the girl in his arms, the doctors pushing him away as he lay her limp body on the table. "Don't die. Don't die. Don't die on me," he recalls himself saying.
But minutes later, she, too, was gone.
He thinks about how he and the other soldiers walked outside the tent. The others began to cry, but Belen told them to shut the fuck up. This was the United States Army, "not the fucking Boy Scouts." This was war; children die in wars. They would deal with it later.
Today, more than a decade removed from his 14-month deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, he's still dealing with it.
"She was a fucking child," he says, tears welling in the corners of his eyes behind dark sunglasses. "I always wonder what happened to her, where she is, if she's in heaven."
"I left the battlefield 13 and a half years ago," Belen says, leaning forward on a park bench and settling his elbows on the tops of his thighs. He takes a deep breath and exhales, rubbing the open palms of his hands against each other. What seemed like the best remedy during the war – to tuck the trauma away in the most secluded corners of his mind – would lead to his eventual unraveling after he rejoined the civilian world.
As he says, "I started remembering."