Lantana vet-poet recalls terror of hunting explosives in Afghanistan

“We find them with sight.

Each patrol leads to new


Step on one, you’re done.”

Logically, in Justin Eggen’s mind, he knows that an ant trail is just an ant trail, that it’s just a run-of-the-mill feature of living in South Florida. That it’s not a danger to him or anyone else. That he’s safe.

But yet.

“I don’t step on ant trails, even here in Florida. I don’t want to take that chance,” explains Eggen.

It’s how he was trained. He spent two combat deployments in Afghanistan as a United States Marine, combing the area for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Though it’s been more than five years since the Forest Hill High School graduate came back to Florida, the memories of the dangers and darkness endure.

Eggen writes about coping with that singular experience, from the depths of uncertainty to his pride in service in “Outside the Wire: A U.S. Marine’s Collection of Combat Poems and Short Stories.”

VIDEO: Watch Editorial Page Editor Rick Christie talk to Justin Eggen on the Post’s YouTube channel

The 28-year-old Lantana resident is now spending time promoting the book, speaking at Emporia State University in Emporia, Ill., the birthplace of Veteran’s Day, as well as American University in Washington, D.C. and North Carolina State University. He relates his experiences overseas, the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) he suffered back home and his journey from combat to a literary career.

His poems, many of them starkly effective haiku, are short and emotionally blunt. “Suicide Poem,” a plainspoken piece, begins:

“Shooting myself would be easy.

I know it would hurt, and I

know it’s selfish.

That doesn’t change the fact

that I don’t want to die yet.

At the same time, I died a long

time ago.”

In another, simply called “War,” he writes “War is not joyous/War is fierce; it is unknown/War is unbiased.”

Eggen explained that he joined the Marine Corps in 2008, the year after his high school graduation. “I had actually tried joining the Army, at 17, but my mom said ‘No. I don’t want to sign any papers for you.” A year later, Eggen was cleaning planes at Palm Beach International Airport, while President George W. Bush and his fleet of planes were there. Eggen says he was struck by the Marines that accompanied him, thinking “’That’s some discipline right there.’”

His first deployment was as a combat replacement in Marjah in 2010, his second in the Sangin Valley in 2011. Eggen replaced “a guy who lost his leg,” he remembered.

The gravity of the situation was immediately striking, as he noticed “that two or three times a day there was a Medevac plane at a pretty alarming rate” transporting injured troops. “That set my mind for where I was going…and helped me understand the severity of what was happening.”

His main job, Eggen says, was to travel Route 611, a main supply route, “and clear out all the IEDs,” either with a metal detector or a special mine detector vehicle nicknamed a Husky. He started as a machine gunner, and quickly learned that their job, which seemed straightforward, was anything but.

“The limitations to an IED maker is their imagination,” he says. “If they can get it to explode,” they use it. He spoke of explosives made from coffee cups or packs of cigarettes.

Because of the unexpected nature of the explosives, Eggen recalls there were many instances of traumatic brain injury or TBI, which caused “concussions, memory loss and (for people to get) discombobulated.”

As challenging as his deployments were, life did not get easier for Eggen when he returned stateside.

“When I stepped off the bus coming home from my final deployment, something happened,” he write in his book’s foreword. “I was hit with a wave of depression and emotions, knowing I’d made it back. Everything hit me at once, and I didn’t know how to actually absorb it.”

On his 23rd birthday, he attempted suicide. His marriage crumbled. A motorcycle accident in December 2014 left him shaken even more.

And, so as a way out of the darkness, he sought help both professionally and through the catharsis of writing down his feelings. He’s been writing since he was young, he says, so committing his thoughts was a natural outlet.

His poems deal both with the stress of service and the sense of loss after returning home. “You’re dealing with (thoughts of) suicide. You feel disconnected from society, both from combat and coming home…When you get home, they want to make you go work at Home Depot. No offense (to anyone there), but they want you to hand out wood. I was in charge of millions of dollars worth of equipment. I don’t want to hand out wood.”

He hopes his “dark, gritty” poems help people understand the true cost of war. The book is dedicated partly to 18 Marine friends lost in Afghanistan.

“I want everyone who reads it to feel some sort of emotion, some connection to what (combat troops) lost,” he said. “It made me feel really good to do something positive. And I don’t want any more veterans killing themselves, (I want it) to be like ‘Man, you just could have called me.’”

“No one carries this pain alone.

It’s on all of us.

We are in it together.

We have each other.”

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