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Gunnery Sgt. Nick Popaditch

When the Marines arrived to Firdos Square in Baghdad to pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi people came out to cheer and celebrate. Among those who were all smiles was Gunnery Sgt. Nick Popaditch, a tank commander who was serving with 1st Tank Battalion. Just before the statue was yanked down, an Associated Press photo, entitled “Cigar Marine,” captured the success of the Marines and gratitude of a nation.

Gunnery Sgt. Nick Popaditch

Gunnery Sgt. Nick Popaditch is all smiles while he puffs on a cigar in the turret of his tank after he arrived at a main crossroads in downtown Baghdad April 9, 2003. (Photo By: Laurent Rebours - Courtesy Savas Beatie LLC)

One year later, Popaditch was at it again, only this time in the notorious insurgent infested city of Fallujah, Iraq. On April 7, 2004, a hissing rocket propelled grenade was fired at the tank he was riding in while he was manning the machine gun atop. The RPG struck the hatch his upper body was peering out of and exploded next to his head. His helmet blew off and he dropped inside the turret. Popaditch’s Marines drove him back to safety. The explosion caused Popaditch to lose his right eye, and deterred his hearing.

Popaditch received the Purple Heart and was awarded the Silver Star for his actions during his deployment.

Marines magazine: What are you all about today?

Gunnery Sgt. Nick Popaditch: Once a Marine, always a Marine. I live by the same exact value system as I did when I was in the Marines. I use these values every day.

What was happening when the “Cigar Marine” photo was taken?

We had just arrived to Baghdad and the Iraqis started to celebrate. I mean, people where literally in the streets celebrating with smiles on their faces – they were happy to see us. I think it was a key moment because it signified an alliance, us and them, to get rid of their dictator. My (commanding officer) came over to my tank to use my (field) radio. He handed me the cigar he was smoking while he spoke on the radio. I began to smoke the cigar and enjoy the view of the celebrating people. That’s when the photo was shot. It was an indeed a genuinely good moment.

Not many people can get struck in the head by a rocket propelled grenade and live to tell the story. Do you feel blessed or lucky being able to walk away from the attack?

I feel both blessed and lucky. I was surrounded by a lot of good Marines, and they kept me alive. I have them and my body armor to thank.

What has motivated you to continue to succeed and prosper when faced with limited vision?

Like I said; ‘once a Marine, always a Marine.’ The Marine Corps has always taught me to overcome adversity. As soon as we step on those yellow footprints, we’re thrown in an environment where we must overcome many adversities. I’ve been put against many challenges before and I have come out successful because of what the Marine Corps has trained me to do. When I was wounded, I maintained that ethos, because I know that’s the only way I can get through the challenges that I faced afterward.

Who’s your role model?

My father, the hardest worker I know. He taught me how to treat people with respect and be accountable for my actions.

What is one message you’d like to tell Marines today?

234 years of tradition are on your shoulders. It is your responsibility to carry on the honor and tradition as high as it has been handed down to you.

What’s something that you miss about being in the Corps?

The people. Being constantly surrounded by so many good people who value integrity, honor and other courtesies. In the Marine Corps, Marines measure each other on their character, not on the car they drove, or the house the lived in. The Marines valued each other’s character.

What’s your favorite Meal, Read-to-Eat?

Chicken and salsa. Shoot, I’d pay for it at a restaurant.

What’s one thing you can’t leave home without, that’s not issued, when heading to the field?

Foot powder. And something to read.

What kind of music do you physically train to?

None. I get all of my thinking time done during PT.

What’s your favorite vacation spot?

Oahu, Hawaii.

What was one of the worst verbal reprimands you’ve ever received in the Marine Corps?

When I had just gotten to the drill field, I was out one day training the recruits. A recruit walked by and I didn’t say anything to the recruit, who didn’t say anything to me either. Just then, without a delay, Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent, the sergeant major of the Marine Corps who back then was the sergeant major of the recruit training battalion at MCRD San Diego, started to square me away. “Oh, I guess that recruit was just perfect!” He informed me that as a drill instructor, it’s my duty to always correct the recruits at all times when their under my charge. He informed in a tough way. Now, whenever I hear the sergeant major speak during the Marine Corps Birthday Message, his voice brings me back to that day, and I always hear him chewing me out.

If there was a movie about you, what would it be called and who would play you?

“Just Happy To Be Here.” Someone who I have never heard of would have to play me because I hate prima donnas.

Pick up a copy of “Once a Marine” to read more about Gunny Popaditch’s journey in and out the Corps.

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10 Responses

  1. Chew Toy says:

    NOW I understand why I, as a recruit, would always get hassled by DIs of other platoons when going somewhere at MCRD. Always squaring you away, perfection isn’t enough. LOL

  2. Bill Schroeder says:

    GREAT interview. Gunny Popaditch is a true american who lives to serve our great land. He is currently running for congress in California’s 51st hoping to continue a life of service.

    A quick story.

    I had met Nick on a couple of occassions before asking him to speak at our 234th Birthday Ball in Schererville, Indiana. There, I spent quite a bit of time with he and his family. Driving back to my house for an “after party,” I turned to him and asked if he had ever had a situation where he spent time with someone and hoped that they were the person he thought they were…and actually had that person exceed his expectations by a longshot? He paused and said yes.

    He then sat, apparently recalling the person who made such an impression on him…after about 30 seconds…he said “Wait…are you talking about me?” I could not help but laugh and shake my head yes. He said “I’m just happy to be here.”

    What a genuine person and an awesome example of a Marine’s Marine.

    Semper Fi Nick.

  3. Erika Zahrndt says:

    You are a shining example to all. Thank you for your service. OOH RAH!! SEMPER FI DEVIL DOG!!

  4. Ryan Hazlett says:

    Your an inspiration to Tankers and the Corps especially when it comes to “Adapt and Overcome”! SEMPER FI Gunny Pop

  5. Angela says:

    You ROCK Gunny! Thank you for putting your life on the line for us and for being such a stellar example to young men and women! May you always be blessed with peace, health and a loving family.

  6. Charles "Doc" Pearce says:

    Good men and women stand up and perform noble deeds. That’s what happens when you answer the call to duty.

  7. Matt says:

    Rah Gunny, you are one tough dog!

    Marines Magazine, call up MCI and order Spelling for Marines.

  8. GySgt Eddie Aguilar-retired says:

    I read your book Marine! Helluva story, and your wife still loves you. You are one blessed Jarhead. Hell Gunny, you could have made rank in the Old Corps……..Semper Fi Marine!

  9. Pat Kenny says:

    Great Article. Thanks Gunny.
    Semper fi
    Pat Kenny
    Camp Patriot . org

  10. Doug Wendling says:

    OoooRah, Gunny! That looks like one FINE cigar… [Weren’t you worried about catchin’ something?
    Semper Fi, Bro and Welcome Home
    Platoon 355, MCRD, December 1961