MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --
I try not to judge a book by it’s cover, but this one is pretty hard not to judge. Looking at the cover of the book, “Once a Marine: An Iraq War Tank Commander’s Inspirational Memoir of Combat, Courage and Recovery,” the reader sees Gunnery Sgt. Nick Popaditch, a salty-looking Marine smoking a victory cigar as he sits atop a tank with the faded image of a Saddam Hussein statue hovering in the background. Although he is in the middle of a war zone, the “Cigar Marine” smiles and laughs. This is a Marine who looks like he has one helluva story to tell. And he does.
In his 288-page memoir, “Gunny Pop” tells his story about the fateful day in April 2004 in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom II, a year after the famous “Cigar Marine” photograph was taken, when an Iraqi insurgent fires the rocket-propelled grenade that changes his life forever.
Reading the book, I can almost see the white flash of light that Popaditch sees as the RPG explodes inches from his face, causing him to nearly go blind after doctors later remove his right eye, barely saving the other. And this is just Chapter One. What follows is a moving story of the docs who save his life, then struggle to save his sight, and the effects his injuries have on him and his family.
Popaditch, from East Chicago, Indiana, co-wrote his memoir with Mike Steere, and takes the reader on a journey starting from just moments before the RPG explodes, to the hospital where he calls his beloved wife, April, which just happens to be the same day as their wedding anniversary. In the many hospitals where Popaditch recovers, he shares camaraderie with the Marines who are also combat wounded, and they motivate each other through humor and stories, never letting each other feel sorry for themselves, because they are Marines.
Even after losing an eye, Gunny Pop never seems to lose his fighting spirit, or his sense of humor. Talking on the phone with his young son after being flown to a hospital, his son asks him what he looks like after his injuries, fearing the worst. The Gunny nonchalantly tells his son “to think back to that scene in The Terminator, (one of his favorite movies), where the robot cuts his own eye out.”
After doctors remove Gunny Pop’s damaged right eye, he later replaces it with a glass one, bearing the Eagle, Globe and Anchor, which, among his other prosthetic eyes, he considers his “favorite.”
Throughout the book, Gunny Pop not only fights to recover from his combat wounds, but fights to remain the “Gunny” he was before his injury, never allowing himself to appear weak in front of other Marines, never complaining about the unfortunate situation he is in. He’s still a Gunny, and darnit if he’s going to appear otherwise.
When Popaditch first wrote his story, it was more of an “after action” type report that he passed along to a Marine major, who suggested he turn it into a book, said Popaditch in a phone interview. One of the reasons he wrote the book, he said, was to say “thank you” to the people who helped him along the way – the Marines who pulled him from the burning tank, the corpsman who gave up his own body armor to shield the wounded Gunny, the doctors who gave him hope, his wife and children who stayed by his side through everything, and the countless others who made his recovery possible.
In addition to giving thanks, Popaditch said writing the book also proved to be “therapeutic,” having to relive experiences that many people in his situation might try to forget.
Reading the book proved to be therapeutic for me, too. I’d be lying if I said I breezed through all 288 pages in one sitting. But whenever I did crack open the book, it was as if I was stepping into the shoes of Gunny Pop, hearing the voice of the salty Gunny who so badly wants to get back on a tank and into the fight.
Whenever he receives bad news from doctors, my heart sinks. When his son Nick Jr. helps win the basketball championship, it’s as if I’m also there cheering him on. When Popaditch is told he might have to leave the Marine Corps if found “unfit for service” by the Physical Evaluation Board, I cross my fingers and hope for the best, but expect the worst.
But all the while, Gunny Pop never loses sight of his core values of honor, courage and commitment, which he says can be applied on and off the battlefield and will “always get you through adversity.”
This book should be read by not only all Marines, but all Americans, to help them gain an understanding and appreciation of what injured service members have to go through and the physical and mental wounds they are left with. The scars of war go deeper than just the surface, and this book is a powerful reminder of the sacrifices men and women on the battlefield are making every day.
“Once a Marine,” which is included in the Marine Corps Professional Reading Program's Reading List, can be checked out at the Mainside Library in Bldg. 1146, or purchased online at www.onceamarine.com.