MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Most Marine Corps Birthday balls have a ceremony that includes readings, a cake cutting, words from the commanding officer and a speech from the guest of honor.
The Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center’s 230th Birthday Ball was slightly different.
The guest of honor, Gunnery Sgt. Nicholas A. Popaditch, USMC (ret) was presented with a Silver Star 10 minutes prior to the official start of the ceremony.
Popaditch, a Hammond, Ind., native who retired in May after more than 15 years of service, received the award for his actions during a battle for Fallujah, Iraq, last April while attached to 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.
"While on patrol in Al Fallujah, Iraq, Fox Company came under heavy enemy fire and without hesitation, Gunnery Sgt. Popaditch surged his two tanks into the city to support the Marines under fire,” states the award citation. “He led his tank section several blocks into the city, drawing fire away from the beleaguered Marines.
“His decisive actions enabled Fox Company to gain a foothold in the city and evacuate a critically wounded Marine.”
The audience was silent, as the reading continued.
“For several hours, enemy forces engaged his tank section with withering rocket propelled grenade fire until they were destroyed by accurate machinegun fire. Acting as the forward observer for an AC-130 gunship, Gunnery Sgt. Popaditch directed fire onto enemy targets, effecting their annihilation.”
Popaditch is humble about the actions cited in the citation, but he tells a different version of the final paragraph.
“On the morning of April 7th, Gunnery Sgt. Popaditch was severely wounded by a rocket propelled grenade blast while fighting insurgents,” it reads. “Blinded and deafened by the blast, he remained calm and directed his crew to a medical evacuation site.”
When Popaditch shares the story, he gives the credit to his tank crewmen, three young men who followed their instincts, relied on their training and displayed a tremendous amount of courage under fire.
Instead of giving a prepared speech during the ceremony, Popaditch spoke from the heart, thanking the men and women of Headquarters Battalion.
“While contemplating what to say as the guest of honor, it occurred to me I’m the one who should be honored to be in your presence,” said Popaditch explaining he was humbled by the invitation to be the guest of honor. “Every Marine and Sailor out there has either enlisted or reenlisted since Sept. 11. Every one of you had a choice to make, and all of you chose to serve and defend our nation.”
After his address, a Marine complimented Popaditch on speaking from the heart, rather than reading from a prepared speech.
“It’s what I do,” joked Popaditch, with a black patch covering his right eye. “I’d need some pretty large note cards to read a prepared speech without any magnification.”
Popaditch, who lost his right eye and the hearing in his right ear in the attack, is a full time college student with plans to become a high school teacher.
He lives with his wife April and his youngest son, Nicholas just a few blocks away from Recruit Depot San Diego, where he spent three years as a drill instructor earlier in his career.
Ever positive, Popaditch is ranked at or near the top of each of his classes, despite the severely limited vision in his left eye.
After the ball, Sgt. Maj. James Ricker, MCAGCC sergeant major explained how the choice was made to invite Popaditch to be the guest of honor.
“All of us present that night got to see history in the making, said Ricker, a 29 year Corps veteran. “I can think of no better way to remind all Marines who we are and what we represent to the citizens of our county. I have attended many birthday balls over the years, and that night I was in the presence of a hero of our generation of Marines.”