Meet Gunny Pop at our 2009 Conference!
Once a Marine: An Iraq War Tank Commander’s Inspirational Memoir of Combat, Courage, and Recovery, by Nick Popaditch, with Mike Steere (color photo insert, maps, Foreword by Col. Bryan McCoy, index. 336 pp., Cloth, d.j. $25.00 ISBN 13: 978-1932714-47-0. Savas Beatie LLC, September 2008.)
“The last human being I see with perfect clarity—the last I will ever fully see—does his damndest to kill me.” So opens Once a Marine, a new and stunningly personal memoir by Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Nick Popaditch. The fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a veritable flood of books—which is something of a surprise given the fact that the wars have yet to end and may not for many years to come. But none of these accounts are quite like Once a Marine.
Popaditch, or “Gunny Pop” as he is affectionately and widely known, is one of the war’s readily recognizable personalities. On April 9, 2003, in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, Gunny Pop’s tanks were protecting the streets leading into the public area as the Iraqis (with Marine help) prepared to tear down Saddam’s giant bronze statue. While sitting proudly in the cupola of “Carnivore,” his 68-ton M1A1 battle tank, someone handed the commander a cigar—which he promptly lifted to his lips for a puff. A French AP photographer froze the moment in time with a stunning image of the smiling gunny, the cigar in his fingerless black-gloved hand and smoke curling from his broad and infectiously handsome grin. Looming in the background was the haunting image of the giant statue just minutes before it toppled to the ground. The photo of “The Cigar Marine” shot around the world, gracing the front page of scores of newspapers.
After he returned home, Gunny Pop volunteered to return to the fighting and his comrades—unbeknownst to his wife April. In April 2004, Gunny Pop and his tankers fought 36 hours straight, block-by-block through the war-torn streets of Fallujah. Clever beyond his years, the tank commander devised a combined operation protocol utilizing C-130 gunships at night to clear out the enemy-infested areas ahead of his tanks. The feat earned him a coveted Silver Star—one of our country’s most prestigious combat awards. The next morning, however, Gunny Pop’s life changed with the snap of a finger.
“I tell the story the way many of us Marines speak, using some rough, tough, and extremely salty language. The point is not to shock or offend, but to put you there with me and my brothers.”
After dispatching an enemy combatant who had just fired on his tank, Gunny Pop heard a sharp hiss just before he was hit in the head by an RPG fired from the roof of a building above and behind him. The crippling injury blew out his right eye and removed most of his vision in the left, leaving him almost completely blind and deaf. It also ended the 16-year career of the former physics honor student who loved Shakespeare almost as much as he idolized the United States Marine Corps. “The impact was like someone just brained me with a sledgehammer and knocked everything up there loose,” was how he described being hit in the head with a four-pound missile traveling nearly 300 miles per hour. Proof of the devastating impact blanketed the world’s news when a CNN camera crew shot footage of his burning tank “Bonecrusher” while his wounded comrades helped pull a disoriented, blind, and deaf Gunny Pop onto a stretcher. “Gunny still is Gunny,” he would later explain, “even blinded and deaf and pumping blood out of numerous new holes in my head.” Unbeknownst to Nick or his wife April—who is about to earn a Sainthood—their real battles are still ahead of them.
Once a Marine is more like a conversation than a military memoir. Picture sitting with Gunny Pop over a beer as he closes his one nearly blind eye to better explain how he reached this point in his life. There is plenty of fighting here, especially later in the book when he goes back in time to explain how he ended up in the Marine Corps. A lifer “trigger-puller,” Gunny describes the 1991 First Gulf War, his experiences as a “hat” (drill instructor), the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and his battles fought along the way to Firdos Square—and of course the fateful Second Battle of Fallujah, this time in much more detail than what is revealed during the early pages of the book.
But Once a Marine is not a tactical blow-by-blow combat memoir—which is why it is so much more valuable than others in its genre. Gunny Pop reveals himself completely, something you will find in few if any warrior’s reminiscences. In doing so, he lifts the secret veil for an insider’s view of the sacred fraternity of fallen warriors. His family struggles—personal, traumatic, and vividly recreated—are so heartfelt they bring tears to the eyes. Contrarily, his battles with establishment bureaucrats for rightful recognition and compensation for his permanent disabilities trigger disgust and anger, viscerally so after suffering so much with “our” Gunny Pop.
“Consider yourself warned: The G-rated writing ends here.”
Not surprisingly, the language is rather hearty—“Consider yourself warned: The G-rated writing ends here,” Nick explains at the end of his Introduction. “I tell the story the way many of us Marines speak, using some rough, tough, and extremely salty language. The point is not to shock or offend, but to put you there with me and my brothers.” And he succeeds admirably.
Invigorating, fast-paced, personal, and in places eerily reminiscent of Dalton Trumbo’s timeless Johnny Got His Gun, Popaditch’s Once a Marine will appeal to a very wide audience, including women and civilians who will find the family dynamics, medical, and emotional issues riveting. Of special interest is the glimpse into the soul of this modern-day Achilles, and how he used his “moto-Marine discipline and energy” to overcome obstacles few of us mere mortals could surmount.