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'We regret to inform you '

 Marine Gunnery Sgt. Nick Popaditch, lying on top of his tank, covers his face after being wounded during an April 7, 2004, battle in Fallujah, Iraq.
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Date published: 4/11/2006

Second in a three-part series.



April Popaditch froze for a minute when the phone rang. It was the middle of the night on the day before her anniversary, and she had been uneasy all day. She knew something was not right with her husband, who was in Iraq. But she couldn't quite put her finger on the feeling.

She was on vacation with her 10-year-old son, Nicholas, in the resort town of Big Bear, several hours from their home at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif.

April should have been wondering what Gunnery Sgt. Nick Popaditch would surprise her with on April 8, 2004--her 13th wedding anniversary. The year before, it was a front-page newspaper picture of Nick smoking a cigar with statue of Saddam Hussein in the background--a picture that came to symbolize the fall of Baghdad. The media dubbed him the Cigar Marine.

On this anniversary, Nick Popaditch would be making headlines again.

The caller began to speak. "We regret to inform you that your husband has been wounded "

A casualty of battle

Days after four Americans were killed, their bodies mutilated and two of them hung from a bridge in Fallujah, Nick and his tank crew rolled into the city as part of an operation to quell the violence.

To say she was unhappy when Nick volunteered to go to Iraq for a second tour would be putting it nicely. As a Marine wife, she knew and understood that a Marine goes when he's called. But volunteering?

For Nick, there was no choice. Since he joined the Marines at age 18, this was what he had trained for. And it was his job when word came through the lines in Fallujah that a patrol unit had been ambushed. Nick and his crew "fired up" the tank and rolled into the city.

What he noticed, though, was the willingness of the insurgents to fight the U.S. Marines--even those in a tank--head-on.

The fighting was moving from street to street. During a running gun battle, Nick's tank turned down a street that narrowed, making it impossible to move the tank's gun turret. Manning the machine gun, Nick heard a roar from a nearby rooftop. A rocket hit the turret. Then another hit the hatch.

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The series

Yesterday: Rolling into Baghdad.

Today: Wounded in action.

Tomorrow: Recovering from injuries.

Thursday: Rebuilding family life.