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Combat poetry reveals what life is like on the Afghan front lines

(Photo courtesy of Justin Eggen)

Justin Eggen had some things stuck in his head for a long time during — but especially after — his two deployments to Afghanistan. These thoughts became poems and short stories that reflected his feelings and personal experience as a Marine in Marjah and in Afghanistan's Sangin Valley. They are Eggen's way of handling the overwhelming series of emotions from and memories of his time there.


In this episode of Mandatory Fun, We Are The Mighty's Blake Stilwell talks to Justin Eggen on what it was like to write poetry as a Marine Corps combat veteran — and why every U.S. troop needs some creative outlet for thoughts and feelings like his.

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"When I was younger I wrote a bit of poetry," Eggen says. "And I realized this is a good outlet for releasing a lot of pent up memories and aggression."

That was then, this is now.

Eggen wrote up a few poems for "shits and giggles" after he returned from his deployments with the Corps, but the response was better than he ever imagined. He sent it to people who said he needed to share it with the world.

Initially, however, he wasn't apt to publish his works and share them with the world. At first, it was just a way to release the mental anguish. Eggen didn't really take poetry or writing seriously, especially as a way to cope with what he describes as his mind "still living over in Afghanistan."

"Ten years ago, I didn't even think I would deploy to Afghanistan," Eggen says, describing the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan while he was entering the Marine Corps. "When I joined, Afghanistan wasn't even in people's minds. Our Drill instructor said if we're lucky, we'd go to Iraq."

But don't expect Justin Eggen's work to look like anything a stereotypical beret-wearing beatnik might write. Eggen was a .50-cal machine gunner on a route clearance platoon, searching for IEDs in the roads around his area of responsibility.

Eggen at PB Alcatraz, Sangin 2011.

The enemy was like a ghost: They were very good at making IEDs that were hard to detect because they were composed of very few metal elements. His second book, which is currently being written, will be about fighting such a ghostly enemy.

His first book is about the struggle of having your mind stuck back over there.

"A huge part of being home after the Marine Corps is trying to face what happened," he says. "You get blown up and you're never the same, regardless of if you're in a vehicle or on foot. You hit an IED and that rattles you to an extent and you're changed for the rest of your life. I have friends who are not the same. I am not the same person."

For Eggen, writing down a lot of what happened is a powerful thing. Not just for him but for anyone who is struggling emotionally or mentally from a traumatic experience in their life.

He enjoys his work a lot and even enjoys reading them. Each one tells its own little tale. While the longer stories and poems are deeper to him, he also revives the ancient art of the warrior writing haiku. They're just as deep, but short and sweet and he loves the challenge of writing them.

"You get 17 syllables to portray a story," he explains. "if you can build something that makes people think in 17 syllables, that's a huge challenge. That's what Japanese warriors used to do after battle, write haikus. That's how they dealt with a battle. So that's what I did for three weeks straight, counting syllables on my fingers."

For more of Justin Eggen, catch the rest of the show and then check out his book of poetry and short stories, Outside the Wire: A U.S. Marine's Collection of Combat Poems and Short Stories on Amazon.

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