A U.S. Marine Corps tank commander seriously injured in Iraq, Nick Popaditch, tells the story of his road to recovery in a new book called Once a Marine. As Mike O'Sullivan reports, the author offers a close-up look at the challenges facing wounded war veterans.
The Marines have a reputation for being tough, and pride themselves on being at the center of the action. Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Nick Popaditch was at center stage in Baghdad April 8, 2003, as Coalition forces moved to the heart of the city. Popaditch was perched atop his M1A1 tank, grinning and puffing on a cigar as an Associated Press photographer captured his image, with the statue of fallen Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the background. The picture of the grinning Marine would be seen around the world, as would later images of Saddam's statue being toppled.
One year later, Popaditch was again at the center of events at the fiercely fought first Battle of Fallujah. He says the Marines had a clear advantage in training and equipment, but the insurgent fighters knew the neighborhoods and could blend in with the local population.
"And that's one advantage he carries over us because he can walk around unarmed," said Popaditch. "He can stage weapons around the town. He can get very close to you, look at things, make his plan. Generally, they're going to get the first shot off on any given firefight, so the best thing you can do in that sort of situation is just be hard to kill."
Popaditch and his tank crew were tracking down insurgents in a narrow alley. As they reached a cross-street, an insurgent on a rooftop fired a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, which hit the turret of the tank. Popaditch, his head jutting up above the tank's armor line, prepared to return fire as another insurgent shot a second round. The RPG exploded on Popaditch's helmet.
He was dazed and bleeding badly, but survived with help from his crew, as well as Navy corpsmen and medical personnel at a field hospital - but not without lasting injuries.
"I'm missing my right eye," he said. "My right eye is anatomically gone. My left eye is 92 percent blind. There's eight percent of vision remaining in it. So the technical term, I guess, would be legally blind.
The adjustment has taken several years and has been difficult. There were repeated surgeries, battles to be fought with government bureaucrats, and the Marine was facing an uncertain future.
"When I got hit, at that point in my life, I was everything I ever wanted to be," said Popaditch. "I was a gunnery sergeant, I was a tank commander, a platoon sergeant, I was off in a foreign land helping defend an oppressed people. I mean, this was everything I ever wanted to be in my life. I was very happy."
Popaditch says he learned discipline and focus as a young marine recruit, and as he coped later on with his wartime injuries, those traits helped him through a difficult transition. He says Marine Corps values inspired his book, and that the old saying Once a Marine, Always a Marine, inspired its title.
Popaditch credits his wife, April, with helping him adjust to their new civilian life. April says that Marine Corps spouses share a sense of mission, as the husbands go to war and the wives are left with family responsibilities and worries.
"Nobody ever tells you they expect you to be like Wonder Woman or a superhero, but for some reason you feel the same way as the Marine does," he said. "You feel like, I've got big shoes to fill. Even sometimes with the pain that you feel for what you're going through, you're always putting on a stronger front for people."
Today, the couple lives with their son in San Diego, where Popaditch is studying at the local campus of the state university.
"I'm a junior at San Diego State [University]," said Nick Popaditch. "I'm a communications major. I like to joke that apparently civilians communicate a little differently than we do in the Corps, so I'm learning, I'm being re-educated. But you know, one of the things I would love to do is teach high school, so that's one of my goals."
Popaditch is proud of the job he did in Iraq and says he feels no anger about his injuries, not even to the insurgent who wounded him.
"No anger at him," he said. "In the book, we even joke that if I was to bump into him today, I'd probably tell him 'nice shot,' because it was."
Nick Popaditch says he joined the Marines as a teenager looking for a challenge. He found one, and learned the skills to face his new challenges.