Nov. 16, 2008
Las Vegas Review-Journal

JOHN L. SMITH: Every public school classroom needs a decorated Marine tank commander

Academics and opinion-makers love to lament the state of public education and offer their lofty plans to revamp a system hampered by underfunding, overcrowding, and a lack of student discipline.

The theories are fine as far as they go, but I think I've come up with a secret weapon that could save public schools throughout the land. His name is Nick Popaditch.

I met him last week at the Leatherneck Club, where the walls are lined with photographs of U.S. Marine Corps heroes from distant wars. The local Marine Corps bar is known for its cold beer and camaraderie, but it's not the kind of place where the regulars are much impressed by tales from the battlefield. Around there, everyone has a war story, and some carry the scars as illustrations.

But the day I visited was different. That much was clear from the solemn respect being paid Popaditch, a medically retired Marine gunnery sergeant and former tank commander.

Popaditch's Iraq war story is written on his face: A black patch over his right eye, 8 percent vision in his left eye, the result of taking a direct hit in the helmet from a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) during the First Battle for Fallujah on April 7, 2004.

Popaditch, or "Gunny Pop" as he was known, is the size of a linebacker and exudes the kind of confidence and charisma it takes to lead Marines into battle. In a 30-minute talk, he manages to make light of the attack and at one point even gives the Iraqi insurgent credit for his unsuccessful effort to kill the hard-headed tank gunner.

Although forced into retirement by battle injury, he's a Marine through and through. Beneath that patch, his favorite prosthetic right eyeball has the Corps' Eagle, Globe and Anchor emblem engraved on it. Now that's devotion.

A conversation with Popaditch, author of the new book "Once A Marine," is a reminder that while the politics of war is complex and controversial, the character of the Americans who volunteer to fight for this country is awesome and inspiring.

He was there on the day the statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled to the ground.

"That was a life-changing event for me," he said. "Like many people in this country, I was born into freedom. When I was in that square and I saw that statue come down, I saw freedom at its most grass-roots level. I saw people who had been under a dictator for 35, 40 years freed. I saw the expressions on their faces, and I talked to them. And I said, to me, this is what it's really all about. This is about freeing people from oppression.

"That was more symbolic more than anything. I knew there was a lot of heavy lifting ahead."

While doing that heavy lifting with the help of his M1A1 battle tank, Popaditch grew fond of the Iraqi people. He saw them manage to laugh amid the blood and tragedy of war fought in their own city streets. He came to respect their strength and basic goodness.

It's not the kind of perspective you often hear about from either end of the media.

About a year after the statue fell, Popaditch survived that RPG to the helmet.

Throughout the conversation Popaditch referred to the values of "courage, honor, and commitment" he learned as a Marine and how they continue to benefit him in civilian life.

Iraqi war veterans struggle with an 18 percent unemployment rate, about three times the national average, despite possessing impressive leadership skills.

I began to wonder how this generation of war veterans might best continue to serve the nation that's so indebted to them.

Popaditch found an answer: Take advantage of the G.I. Bill, go to college, and become a public schoolteacher. Bring the best traits of the American military service where it's needed.

"The same thing we use in a platoon, it will work in the classroom," Popaditch said.

I think he's right. And he's finishing his degree at San Diego State to prove it. This decorated and battle-tested Marine is heeding a new call to arms:

Gunny Pop is becoming a teacher.

Hey, he survived an RPG to the noggin. What's the worst thing that could happen?

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at