U.S. Marine Corps / Silver Star
Marine gunnery sergeant revolutionized tank warfare
but lost his right eye in battle
As his M1 Abrams tank, nicknamed Bonecrusher, rolled through Fallujah, Iraq, Gunnery Sgt. Nick Popaditch thought about the trail of dead insurgents left in its wake: “Fight and you die. Run and you die. Hide and you die. Hey, this works for me.”
Popaditch, or “Gunny Pop” as his Marines called him, commanded a tank platoon during the first Battle of Fallujah in April 2004. Fighting only a week after four American contractors from Blackwater USA were captured, killed and their bodies hung from a bridge, Bonecrusher and Popaditch’s other tank were working with Marine infantry in clearing insurgents out of the city’s northwest outskirts.
Popaditch thought that day’s fight might be different. Usually the enemy shot a few rocket-propelled grenades and ran; this morning Popaditch heard a higher-than-usual volume of AK-47 fire, along with the deeper bursts of a Russian-made machine gun launching rocket-propelled grenades. Maybe this meant the Marines would be engaging a larger force.
Moving into the narrow streets, the commander kept his head on a swivel, looking in every direction as he scanned the rooftops, alleys, doorways, trash drums — anyplace a gunman could hide and shoot Marines advancing through the city.
He spotted a shooter 80 yards away and barked his order: “Gunner – Coax – troops – fire and adjust!” Sitting below him, the gunner loosed a burst of 7.62mm rounds from the coaxial machine gun, killing the gunman.
The Iraqis didn’t know that the tanks’ arrival had changed the rules of the fight. There would be no more blithely ambushing Marine infantry with RPGs and quick AK-47 bursts from the rooftops.
At night, the Abrams’ advanced optics allowed Popaditch to see the enemy long before they could see him. Plus, this same technology let him see through smoke and dust during the day. The Coax was fed from a bin holding 2,800 rounds, and the tank’s huge main gun fired a shaped charge that blasted through concrete walls and then exploded.
An Iraqi RPG left only a black mark on the tank’s armor that could be wiped off with a wet rag. But an Abrams was a 70-ton mobile killing machine the likes of which Fallujah had never seen in action.
As Bonecrusher moved backward to assist an ambushed Marine patrol, small groups of insurgents attacked. It was no contest; Popaditch and his gunner killed them with impunity. Another Marine platoon took station alongside the tank, and together they moved into the city, the infantry ahead of the tank.
“This doesn’t work,” Popaditch thought. “I can’t tell the friendlies from the bad guys.”
So in a move that changed Marine urban tank tactics and strategy, he called the infantry platoon leader and suggested a reversed order: The tanks would lead instead of the more vulnerable infantrymen.
The tactic worked. By the end of the first block, the tanks and infantrymen were killing insurgents left and right, and more enemy were rushing forward to stop them. Bonecrusher forced them to fight or run, but they would die either way.
“Engaged and killed six!” the gunner reported. “Engaged and killed four!” Another block into the city: “Engaged and killed three!” The only thing stopping Popaditch’s impromptu advance was ammunition, so the Marines ran belts of .50-caliber ammo and some main-gun rounds to him.
The next day, however, Popaditch was not so fortunate. Chasing insurgents down a narrow cross street, he did not see one atop a three-story building fire a rocket-propelled grenade into the tank hatch.
It exploded next to Popaditch’s head.
“He put one right in the hatch,” Popaditch said. “I knew what had hit me because I heard it right before it hit me. It makes a unique sound, like a snake. I heard, ‘Sssss,’ then bam! I felt like I got hit in the head with a sledgehammer. I saw a white flash of light like a camera flash, only a lot brighter, and then blackness . . . and all I could hear in my ears was a static.”
Still conscious, Popaditch stood inside the tank and tried to assess his injuries as he directed Bonecrusher’s crew back to the defensive line. Bleeding badly from the neck and head, he fought to stay awake. Surgeons would later remove what remained of his right eye.
Popaditch’s new chapter in Marine urban fighting tactics and his actions to direct his tank crew to safety though badly injured were cited in the commendation that accompanied his Silver Star, which he received Nov. 10, 2005.
But his actions in battle were not extraordinary for a Marine, Popaditch said: “I think every Marine around me would have done the same thing; they just weren’t in the same circumstance. And maybe because of where it happened, it was a little more high visibility that somebody wrote a citation for.”
Andrew Lubin is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania who has embedded with the Marine Corps in Iraq; Afghanistan; Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and Beirut, Lebanon. He is the author of “Charlie Battery: A Marine Artillery Unit in Iraq.”
U.S. Marine Corps / Silver Star
Nickname: Known as “Gunny Pop,” Gunnery Sgt. Popaditch served in 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines.
Born July 2, 1967 in Hammond, Ind.
Enlisted in 1986 and served three tours of duty in Iraq, including Desert Storm in 1991 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
Has written a book, “Once a Marine,” about his military service and recovery from his injuries.
WHAT HE DID
On the battlefield, Popaditch suggested and implemented a new and reverse urban fighting method by putting tanks in front of infantry. A day later, he was severely wounded when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded next to his head. Still, he managed the safe return of his tank and crew.
WHERE HE IS NOW
Retired from the Marines, he lives with his wife and two sons in Linda Vista, Calif., where he is finishing college and plans to run for Congress.
WHY HE JOINED THE MARINES
“I was going nowhere with my life when a recruiter called me up. It all sounded good. He was telling me all the things you could do in the Marine Corps, and he was talking about teamwork in everything you do, and I was thinking, ‘This all sounds great.’ ”
Iraq / Fallujah