Famous Marine from invasion of Iraq delivers epic Memorial Day speech

The iconic "Cigar Marine" AP photograph taken by Laurent Rebours just before the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square was destroyed on April 9, 2003.

In 2012 , an eyepatch-wearing Marine stood before a crowd attending the San Diego Veterans Museum Memorial Day Event. Recounting the sacrifices of Marines throughout American history.

As the crowd surged and cheered to his every word, the Marine took a moment to somberly recount a soldier killed in in a gunfight during the Iraq War. As he began his story, an aircraft flew overhead, drowning him out. Reverently pausing, the Marine waited until the aircraft had passed before he told the “final moments” story of a dying Marine, feeling the crowd needed to hear every word.

But who is this one-eyed Marine?

The story of Retired Gunnery Sergeant Nicholas A. Popaditch -known by some as Gunny Pop- is a fairly interesting one by Marine standards, as the man fought the Iraqis not once, but twice- in two separate wars.

Born and raised in Indiana, Popaditch turned down a scholarship in order to join the Marines in 1986, where he became a tank crewman. Promoted to tank commander as a Corporal and later reaching Sergeant,  Popaditch would find himself heading off to liberate Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm.

Getting out in 1992 to spend more time with his loved ones, Popaditch found himself working for a construction company and trying his best to live a normal civilian life. However, the call of the Corps was too great and Popaditch re-enlisted in 1995, serving with an armored unit and eventually becoming a senior drill instructor.

When the invasion of Iraq kicked off in 2003, Gunny Pop made the headlines when an AP photographer snapped a photo of him jovially smoking a cigar in front of  a soon-to-be toppled statue of Saddam Hussein. While he claims he was celebrating he and his wife’s 12th wedding anniversary, the cigar would no doubt double as a victory cigar- moments later, the statue of Saddam was toppled to the ground in what would be one of the most iconic images of the war.

The iconic "Cigar Marine" AP photograph taken by Laurent Rebours just before the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square was destroyed on April 9, 2003.
The iconic “Cigar Marine” AP photograph taken by Laurent Rebours just before the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square was destroyed on April 9, 2003.

During his second deployment to Iraq, Popaditch took part in the first Battle of Fallujah, where he saved a group of Marines under fire by leading them through the streets, using his tank to draw fire while taking out an enemy stronghold. His actions not only earned him a Silver Star, he essentially created a new urban warfare tactic that is still used today.

Unfortunately, Popaditch’s luck would run out. The day after his medal-worthy act of heroism, he was struck by an RPG and was critically injured. Blind, deaf and bleeding out, the Gunny was saved by his wounded crewmembers and evacuated off the battlefield. It would be the last time he ever rode a tank into combat.

Losing vision and hearing in his right eye and ear, Popaditch was awarded a Purple Heart and retired from the Marines in 2005.

GySgt Popaditch in uniform in 2005.
GySgt Popaditch in uniform in 2005.

After a period of rest and recover, Gunny Pop became an advocate for veteran’s issues, serving on boards for organizations such as the Freedom is Not Free organization, the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund and the Independence Fund. Not one to sit back and take it easy for the rest of his life, Popaditch also graduated magna cum laude from San Diego State University and wrote his memoir, Once a Marine: An Iraq War Tank Commander’s Inspirational Memoir of Combat, Courage, and Recovery.

In 2009, Popaditch announced he would run for the US House of Representatives on behalf of California, running as a Republican in the 2010 election. Unfortunately, he lost- both in 2010 and again in 2012.

While Popaditch’s political career was not successful, his valor, service to country and sacrifices have no doubt earned him a place in the hearts of Americans and Marines everywhere. Through his actions, the one-eyed, cigar-smoking, tank-riding Marine has secured his place in history.

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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