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Marine's celebration cigar had dual meaning
Nick Popaditch lit up to mark the fall of Baghdad, as well as his 12th wedding anniversary.

 Staff Sgt. Nick Popaditch smokes a cigar as he arrives, on a tank, at a main crossroads in downtown Baghdad in 2003.
FILE/LAURENT REBOURS/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Date published: 4/10/2006

First in a four-part series.

By CHELSEA J. CARTER

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Nick Popaditch stood up in his tank, surveying the square with the giant white columns and the statue.

Weeks before, he and his crew had rolled from Kuwait into Iraq. They had battled the elite Saddam Fedayeen, the dust and the heat.

Now, here they were in Baghdad, parked in their tank near a 40-foot statue of Saddam Hussein.

Looking around at the Iraqi people waving and cheering, Popaditch was handed a cigar by a fellow Marine who had carried it through the invasion. Popaditch wasn't a regular cigar smoker. But this was a big moment.

With his upper body protruding from his tank's hatch and the statue of Saddam behind him, Popaditch smoked. As he enjoyed the moment, he smiled. It was his moment to celebrate. Unknown to him, it was also a moment captured by an Associated Press photographer.

Back home, his wife saw the picture of the man the media dubbed the "Cigar Marine," who was on the front pages of newspapers across the country. For America, the picture came to symbolize the fall of Baghdad. For April Popaditch, it represented something else--their 12th wedding anniversary.

Wedding anniversaries represent a renewal of a promise. They are a reminder to honor and cherish one another, to love another in sickness and in health. They are celebrations of what has been and what is yet to come.

For the Popaditches, that day in 2003 began a series of anniversaries marked by war, love and loss.

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When Nick deployed to Iraq in 2003, the couple had already experienced war. They married a few days after he returned from the 1991 Persian Gulf War. They had two sons, including a stepson from a previous marriage.

From the moment the bombs started to fall, April was glued to television news reports for information about the 1st Tank Battalion. From the reports, she and her sons knew there had been some Marine casualties, and she knew they weren't in her husband's unit.

Then came that live news footage--the tanks in Paradise Square, the tanks surrounded by jubilant Iraqis. April watched in California during the waning hours of her anniversary, straining for a glimpse of her husband. He's there, she thought. Nick's there.


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The series

Today: Rolling into Baghdad

Tomorrow: Wounded in action

Wednesday: Recovering from injuries

Thursday: Rebuilding family life