Veterans Community Showcase: Nick Popaditch, the ‘Cigar Marine’

gettyimages 566050667 Veterans Community Showcase:  Nick Popaditch, the Cigar Marine

Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant (ret) Nick Popaditch holds a piece of rusty shrapnel that was removed from his eye October 27, 2008. Popaditch was injured when an rpg exploded near his head during a gun battle in Fallouja. (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

We asked you to tell us about a veteran who continues to serve and inspire. From hundreds of compelling entries, we chose to tell the stories of eight veterans. The first-ever Veterans Community Showcase is presented in partnership with United Rentals.

By Jonathan Kaupanger

“I looked down the alley and saw anti-coalition forces fire straight at us.  That RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) hit the side of my turret and it didn’t penetrate. Another RPG was launched, and I guess that sucker had better aim.  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.”

Meet veteran Nick Popaditch, or The Cigar Marine.

“I was trying to kill him; he just hit me first,” explained Popaditch in a 2008 LA Times article.  “If you are going out as a Marine, you want to go out in a gunfight.  The one I went out in was a pretty good one.”  The battle Nick is talking about is the first battle of Fallujah.

You may not realize it, but there’s a chance that you’ve already learned something about Nick.  If you Google “the Cigar Marine,” the first picture you see is of Nick.  During the 2003 Iraq invasion, at the time Staff Sergeant Popaditch and his unit were onsite to bring down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square.  The cigar was to not just celebrate the victory, but his 12th wedding anniversary as well.

One year and a promotion to gunnery sergeant later, Popaditch volunteered to go back to Iraq.  In an interview with Blackfive blog that took place just over a month after being hit by the RPG, Popaditch recalled what happened on April 7, 2004, in the middle of the battle for Fallujah.

After being hit, he said he saw a flash of light and then everything went black.  He was blinded and temporarily deaf, but wasn’t feeling any pain yet.  He fumbled around inside the tank until he found his gunner, Cpl. Ryan Chambers.  He grabbed Chambers and screamed, “Chambers, we have to get the tanks out of here, and you’re going to have to call for a medevac.”

There was no answer.  At least not one that Nick could hear.

Popaditch grabbed Chambers and shook him then screamed at him a few more times, “Until I realized he’d probably answered me but I couldn’t hear him.” The tank started to move and a little of Nick’s hearing started to come back.  He could hear Chambers on the radio.

“That was comforting to me,” he recalled, “to know that he had taken charge of the situation.

gettyimages 566026557 Veterans Community Showcase:  Nick Popaditch, the Cigar Marine

Gunnery Sergeant (ret) Nick Popaditch wears a false eye emblazoned with the eagle, globe and anchor insignia of the Marine Corps. (Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

He has had several operations to remove shrapnel from his head, nose and eye.  Even so, Nick lost his right eye and hearing in his right ear. When he went to be fitted for a prosthetic eye, he found he wasn’t alone. In the waiting room with him were “seven one-eyed jarheads.”

Popaditch asked the technician to make him an eye, but instead of a normal eye with a pupil, his has the Marine Corps’ eagle-globe-and-anchor logo. He also had two other special eyes made: one with the gun sights of a tank gunner and one with the logo of the 1st Tank Battalion.

He was medically retired from the Marines, but that hasn’t stopped his love of country.  In fact it was that love that pushed him to run for political office.  In 2009 he ran for California’s 51st congressional seat.  He was unopposed in the primary, but lost in the general election.  In 2012 he tried again, but this time for California’s newly redistricted 53rd District.  Nick won 42 percent of the vote in the primary, but lost again in the general election.

As an advocate of veteran’s issues, Nick serves on the board of several organizations that advance the care of wounded veterans and is a speaker for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.  He earned his Bachelor of Arts in education from San Diego State University and was looking to become a math teacher.  In all his free time he’s authored two books, his 2008 memoir Once a Marine: An Iraq War Tank Commander’s Inspirational Memoir of Combat, Courage, and Recovery and in 2013 he wrote a book for potential Marine recruits, The Ultimate Marine Recruit Training Guidebook.

Nick’s philosophy on life is simple and something we all should hear.

“I want people to see that when you’re faced with a life-changing event, you can survive,” Popaditch said. “When you get rearranged physically, one thing that doesn’t change is your character.”

Connect: @JonathanVets1 | Jonathan@ConnectingVets.com

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