The car was half-submerged in the murky canal water. Soldiers on one side; frantic civilians on the other. A crowd gathered around the hasty rescue effort in the center. He could still see her in his mind. Not her face, but her back. Her hair gently dangled in the water as men pulled her out by her feet. The car had been submerged for almost 6 hours. Rescuers cheered as they finally pulled her out; she couldn’t have been older than six or seven. They laid her down next to her mother. It was just another day in Iraq.

Jonah lay there sweating. He couldn’t sleep. His mind jumped from Iraq to Afghanistan to the Sudan to eastern Russia. His thoughts weren’t filled with guilt, or shame, or fear but a deeper form of questioning. One he could never put his finger on. He saw the girl again. Hair dipping into the water as she was lifted out. He always went back to the girl. Sometimes he imagined her frantically trying to escape the car. At the moment the water filled her lungs she was at peace, and he imagined that death for her was a better alternative to the life she might be forced to live. Eventually Jonah stopped trying to figure the events out and simply remembered them for what they were – crazy.

The cold damp cell where Jonah found himself could not be compared to the torment that had trapped his thoughts for years. But this was more than a cell and more complex than a standard prison. Jonah was locked away from the light of day and stowed deep underground where he couldn’t hope to hear the laughter of his children or feel the touch of his wife ever again. He remained tormented in his mind, not only for the things he had done and saw, but also for things he could never do again.

His current circumstances made it laughable to think of even one blessing of God. And yet, in the cool dampness of night, with only the slightest whimper of other inmates to distract his thoughts, Jonah could easily find them. More often than not, those blessings existed in the form of memories – his three children and a wife that loved him deeply, remaining loyal in these dire circumstances. He also found them in his prison in the present. Jonah sensed them when the sounds of other inmates reminded him he wasn’t alone, at the kindness of a guard giving him an extra portion of food, and every once in a while at the faintest ray of light that managed to penetrate a sewage vent at the end of their concrete hallway.

At Jonah’s weakest, he cried bitterly. He had done so many times here while he counted the days of a trial that appeared to never be coming. He felt the absolute inadequacy to defend himself against a power that invented guilt and innocence rather than adhering to an absolute definition of righteousness. Tonight, however, his mind had no time to succumb to the self-imposed pity that he and countless others endured while at the mercy of the state. No, tonight he could only think of her. That young girl strung upside down by her feet as she was pulled from the concrete canal. Frail and lifeless, she was the mere shell of a body that was altogether empty of the soul that had once made her human. Sometimes he thought he might shed just one of his tears for her. But he couldn’t. He didn’t know her and had arrived too late to blame himself. She was just an image. A picture forever engrained in his mind. The first among hundreds he would see. But she was the first, and she was the only one entirely undeserving of the fate that gripped her.

Sometimes when images of the girl appeared in his mind, he would try to think of his family instead. He remembered the times he and his wife would spend on the playground watching their children laugh and giggle. He would fantasize about taking his children sledding, teaching them to hunt and fish, and watching them grow; all the while marveling with his beautiful wife at how large they’d gotten. Jonah imagined, with guilt, the missed opportunities too. How many years had he thrown away to his work and his job? How many months had he thrown away to this cell, imprisoned by the very people he had spent so many years protecting? Despite his attempts, Jonah’s mind always came back to the girl. That girl who so many years ago engrained herself into his mind for eternity. Eventually, on that cold, hard mattress in his damp, dark room, sleep overtook him; another blessing he took for granted all too often.

Written by Thane Keller

Thane is a native of Northern Virginia that has been traveling the world with his wife and four children. Thane researches and writes about technology, innovation, leadership, decision-making, and organizational change.