Meet an amazing American from Hammond, Indiana, Nick Popaditch, the Cigar Marine. I swear to you, at the end of this article, you'll be asking yourself, "Where do we find such men?".
To fully understand why strangers across the country are sending well wishes to "Nick Popaditch, a true American hero" they've never met, one must rewind to Operation Iraqi Freedom and the liberation of Baghdad. In a famous event that truly symbolized the liberation, 1st Tank Battalion Marines pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein. An Associated Press photographer captured then-Staff Sgt. Nick Popaditch grinning, smoking a stogie with the statue falling in the background.
This photo, which ended up on the front page of nearly every major paper in the United States, earned him the title of "the Cigar Marine."
Now fast forward to April 7 this year. Popaditch, still a tank commander with 1st Tank Battalion, volunteered to redeploy to Iraq with another company when he found out his own company wasn't slated to go back yet.
For the 36-year-old father of two, that fateful day in Fallujah was just another day at the office — or in the tank, if you ask him.
"We'd been in constant contact with the enemy for 36 hours," he started, absentmindedly tracing a scar above his right eyebrow. "We were on a street so narrow there wasn't even
room to turn my turret."
With the enemy somewhere in front of them, Popaditch and his crew, which included a second
tank, his wingman-slowly traversed the narrow streets.
"We passed an alley no wider than those two poles, and I looked down the alley and saw anti-coalition forces fire (a rocket-propelled grenade) straight at us," he continued.
"That RPG hit the side of my turret and it didn't penetrate, but I ordered my driver to stop and as I turned to engage them with my .50 caliber, another RPG was launched from a rooftop
in front of us, and I guess that sucker had better aim," he laughed. "I'm not sure if he was aiming at my head, or at the hatch. The best I can figure is he split the difference."
Splitting the difference from a rooftop cost Popaditch his right eye — a fact he refuses to dwell on. Rather he speaks of the heroic actions of his 26-year-old gunner, Cpl. Ryan Chambers, a San Luis Obispo, Calif., native.
"When I got hit, I saw a flash of light and then everything went black. All I could hear was fuzz and static," he recalled, pausing to clap as his son's team brought in another runner,
putting them ahead by five runs. "The force of the blast knocked me down into the tank, and I sat up and reached for my radio to start telling the driver we needed to get out of there. But my helmet was gone, so I had no radio."
Blinded, momentarily deaf and not yet feeling pain, Popaditch groped his way around the inside of his tank until he located Chambers.
"That guy, man, he was injured too, and he'd already climbed right up into the cupola — the same cupola I'd just been blown out of — and was assessing the situation," said Popaditch, stopping to laugh. "This is the funny part of the story. I grabbed him and screamed, 'Chambers, we have to get the tanks out of here,' and 'Chambers, you're going to have to call for a medevac.' He didn't answer me, so I shook him and screamed it three or four more times, until I realized he'd probably answered me but I couldn't hear him."
As the tank started moving he could faintly hear Chambers on the radio, he said.
"I heard him hollering at both drivers, just doing what tank commanders do naturally," he said, admiration in his voice. "We were blocks and blocks deep into the city, and Chambers simply took control. That was comforting to me, to know that he had taken charge of the situation."
With Chambers in charge, Popaditch focused on himself for a moment and said he suddenly felt very tired.
"I wanted to lie down right there and go to sleep for a while, but I knew from first aid training that I had to stay awake," he laughed, shaking his head sheepishly. "I stood up, held on, and forced myself to stay awake. I don't remember anything about the trip back to the center of command, but there is a berm near the trestle we were based near, and when I felt the tank cross that berm, I knew we were home."
Popaditch said when his Marines and the medical crew pulled him out of the tank; he knew everything was going to be OK. He said he's still not sure if they were Army medics or Navy
corpsmen, and laughingly apologizes for not knowing, saying, "Hey, I'd just been hit in the face with a grenade."
"When they started treating me, I knew I was safe, and I knew my family would never see a picture of me hanging from a train trestle somewhere," he said. "It was such an emotionally
charged feeling, such a sense of relief."
He remembers very little about being treated in Fallujah, or being medevaced to Germany, but what he does remember amazes him.
"I was on a cot, and they were working on me. I was very heavily medicated," he recalled, taking off the patch covering his right eye and rubbing his hand across his shaved head.
"All of a sudden, they said, 'Gunny, we're being mortared, so we're going to pile these flak jackets on you,' like it was no big deal."
In Germany, he spoke to his wife and parents on the telephone, and after surgery, the doctors told him his right eye had been unsalvageable.
"I'm sure I left this guy on the floor of that tank," he smiled, gesturing to his swollen and closed right eyelid, surrounded with fresh pink scars and some small scabs peppered across his cheeks, mouth and forehead, "But it was nice of them to tell me I'd lost it. This other one is getting better every day though, and I expect to regain 100 percent of my vision in this eye."
When asked how he would sum up the whole experience, Popaditch thought for a minute and smiled.
"This has been the most motivating experience of my life, and it has restored my faith in the youth of America," he said enthusiastically. "The people I've met along the way are amazing. Corporal Chambers saved my life that day, the doctors are working to give me the best quality of life possible, and people across America are coming forward to support not
only me, but all of the guys fighting over there right now."
Along with his eye, Popaditch lost his sense of smell, suffered permanent hearing loss in his right ear, broke his nose and has undergone several surgeries to remove shrapnel from his head, eye and face.
His sense of humor escaped unscathed, as did his love of God, Corps and country.
"My friends and my Marines are still there, still fighting," he said softly. "Any Marine in their right mind would want to be right there with them. All I've really lost is about 10 degrees of peripheral vision, and I'll be OK without that. I'm ready to be with my Marines again."
Nick Popaditch continues to see things in a positive light. He recently attended his son's first baseball game of the season.
"One month ago, I was in Iraq, and I assumed I'd watch his first baseball season on video tape after I got home," he said from his red, white and blue canvas chair next to the dugout. "This is a real treat, being here for these games."Well, folks, you asked for more military profiles that you won't hear about from our media. I can't think of a better example to demonstrate the great stories our media is missing than to show you one great Marine, husband, father, American - Gunny Nick Popaditch.
A real treat. Those three simple words provide a small preview of Popaditch's endlessly positive all-Marine attitude.
Update: Jim B. sends two articles about Nick Popaditch; however, they are streamlined to focus more on the wound than the man.