Then-Staff Sgt. Nick Popaditch of 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, holds a cigar atop his tank in downtown Baghdad, in front of the statue of Saddam Hussein that his unit helped tear down. (Laurent Rebours / The Associated Press)
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SAN DIEGO — The image is known around the world — a Marine Corps tank commander, borrowed cigar in hand, reveling in the taking of Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq. Retired Gunnery Sgt. Nick Popaditch, immortalized in the April 2003 photograph taken by Associated Press photographer Laurent Rebours, became forever known as "The Cigar Marine." In fact, he launched his own special line of premium cigars in November to help raise money for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.
He wrote a 2008 memoir, "Once a Marine," that's a must-read, according to Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, who put it on his reading list. And he's run twice, in 2010 and 2012, for a congressional seat in Southern California.
But Popaditch, now 45, isn't about to slow down. Taking a break in a San Diego bagel shop recently, he spoke excitedly about his latest project, a book about Marine recruit training.
His signature black patch covers the right eye he lost when an RPG struck his helmet during the first Battle of Fallujah in April 2004, also destroying his sense of smell and taste. But his wounds don't dash his resolve or his love of the Corps.
With his latest book, "The Ultimate Marine Recruit Training Guidebook," Popaditch shares his enthusiasm with readers — particularly, he says, high schoolers considering stepping up and saying they want to become Marines. The 178-page book draws from his experiences as a boot and as a drill instructor, to explain Marine vernacular, share a bit of history and explain the process of becoming a Marine.
Marines, particularly staff NCOs, he says, are "the custodians of Semper Fi," responsible for teaching and showing what that means to new Marines and second lieutenants.
Forget what you think you know about Marine Corps boot camp from Hollywood, he says. Listen and learn. Have faith in the chaos.
"Engage all your senses to obtain and process information; look at (but not directly — use your peripheral vision) posted signs; observe the Drill Instructor's hand and arm motions; and feel the direction the rest of the group is moving," he writes. "Calm down. Consciously control your breathing to slow your heart rate; focus on thinking clearly."
They're the same core skills, he notes, that have helped Marines survive and win in combat and uphold the values essential to becoming part of the Corps.