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.
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?
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.