Congressional candidate’s ode to Marine Corps reveals his core values
Once A Marine by Nick Popaditch (with Mike Steere), Savas Beatie LLC, 2008, ISBN 13 978-1-932713-47-0; 293 pages, $25.
By Donald H. Harrison
SAN DIEGO—This book has what might be considered an elliptical title: “Once A Marine…. (Always A Marine.)” And even were this book solely a glimpse into the proud Marine Corps and its traditions, it would be worth a place on the library shelves, particularly in our Marine-friendly county which is home to three major Marine Corps installations.
However, the book takes on even more currency as the autobiography of a man who is seeking the Republican nomination in the 51st Congressional District to oppose Congressman Bob Filner (D-San Diego). Ironically, Filner as chairman of the House Committee on Veteran Affairs has a large base of support in the very veterans community which Popaditch no doubt will court.
The book written two years ago never mentions the prospect of a congressional race. Popaditch, a Silver Star awardee and gunnery sergeant who was forced by a head wound that nearly blinded him to retire from the Marine Corps, at the time of publication was considering pursuing a career as a teacher. Perhaps heartened by the victory in a neighboring congressional district of another veteran of the Iraq War—Duncan Hunter Jr.—Popaditch decided to oppose Filner in what is considered a decidedly Democratic district.
Of course, the now freshman Congressman Hunter had a famous name and a Republican edge to carry him to victory in the 52nd Congressional District. His father Duncan Hunter was the long time congressman from the district, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and an unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate in 2008. It is possible many people who voted for Duncan Hunter Jr. thought they were simply sending his father back to Congress for another term.
Popaditch won some name recognition as a result of a photo that was taken by a French photographer and carried all over the world after American tank corpsmen entered Baghdad and participated with gleeful Iraqis in pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein. In the photograph, now on the cover of his book, Popaditch is seen in the cupola of his tank, smoking a cigar with the silhouette of Saddam’s statue in the background.
In that Popaditch also had served as a recruit and later as a drill instructor at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, and later as a tank commander at Camp Pendleton, San Diego County is familiar ground to the Indiana native. The 51st Congressional District, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Arizona State line along California’s border with Mexico, lies well south of both Marine Corps installations.
While Popaditch portrays the can-do mindset of a Marine, statements he makes in the book are certain to cause political controversy. In particular, the following two paragraphs may prove disturbing:
“In three combat deployments, I have killed, by my best estimate, something like 200 enemy combatants. Such is the nature of tank warfare, where a single main-gun hit on a vehicle can kill a dozen men, and the machine guns do to dismounted infantry what weed whackers do to crab grass. A tank kills ugly, guys cooked alive in armored vehicles and bunkers, vaporized by main gun rounds, chopped to pieces by machine gun fire, smashed under the tracks. Such things are not good to look upon, and nobody in his right mind would derive any enjoyment. I never feel bad, not when it happens and now now.
“Putting down enemies feels pretty much like shooting up plywood targets. Now and again things have seemed ridiculously unfair—Marines versus Shitville High School—but that’s too bad for them because they’re on the wrong side. I know, in my head, that they’re somebody’s sons and brothers and maybe husbands and fathers just like me. What I know in my heart, however, is nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zip. Not in a fight. I never connect in a human way to the enemy in my gun sights—no passion, no bloodlust, no pity, no recognition that these are, in fact, human beings…”
Popaditch describes his former job as a tank commander as being a “trigger puller” and he takes pride in how well he did it. When he lost an eye, sense of balance, and most of the sight in his other eye, his biggest regret was being knocked out of the fight. He spent months trying to get back in it, attempting to prove that he was still Marine Corps fighting material. Ultimately he realized the truth, that his pride notwithstanding, he no longer had the physical ability to lead others into battle. How could others in a tank formation count on someone who would not be able to see the target, except perhaps with the help of the most sophisticated optics?
In separating from the Marine Corps, Popaditch became alienated from the bureaucrats who evaluate the percentage of injury suffered by a wounded warrior. These estimations set the standard for calculating the amount of medical benefits the wounded warrior will receive. When Popaditch felt that Marine Corps colonels back east were fudging his numbers, he became enraged, and almost began a letter writing campaign to the White House and to Congress. But then he felt ashamed that he had almost gone around the chain of command, and decided to tell the people at his base what was happening to him. The Marine Corps takes care of its own, with even the commandant and a past commandant going to bat for him.
He said that the Veteran Affairs Administration did a wonderful job for him helping to improve his limited sight, adding that the agency often gets a bum rap for bureaucratic problems that happen in the services, even in his beloved Marine Corps.
What voters will have to decide is whether Popaditch’s love for the Marine Corps will trump his determination to serve his constituents. Will his solution to international conflicts tend to mirror his desire as a Marine to go in there and kick some ass? In a toss up between greater spending on military equipment for the Marine Corps or increased social services for his district, where would Popaditch land?
There is a wide philosophical distance between Filner, who is a considered a liberal member of Congress, and Popaditch, who trumpets his credentials as a conservative. There also is a religious difference, with Filner being a Jew unaffiliated with any congregation and Popaditch a Protestant who proclaims his religious beliefs to be part of his core values. Filner is a former Freedom Rider of the Civil Rights era, who went to jail for his beliefs. Before entering politics, he served as a history professor at San Diego State University.
Filner will ride into the race with the benefit of incumbency, support of veterans groups and Democrats, and a record of serving as an advocate and ombudsman for his constituents through three important public offices: San Diego Unified School District member, San Diego City Councilmen, and a member of Congress.
If this book is a guide, Popaditch will be an exponent of his core values and the Corps’ values.
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World