SAN DIEGO — They are the few, the proud — the Marines. If you ask one, he or she will tell you they are prepared to fight and die for their country, but most aren't prepared to come back wounded or disabled.
That is something Gunny Sergeant Nick Popaditch didn't spend a lot of time training for.
On April 7, 2004, Popaditch was leading his tank crew on an assault of Fallujah to root out insurgents. The team was powering through the city taking out the bad guys until, as Popaditch told MTV News, "One Iraqi had a lucky shot." An insurgent managed to fire a rocket-propelled grenade through the small hatch in Popaditch's M1A1 Abrams tank.
"The rocket hit me in the head," he said. "It knocked me down but didn't knock me unconscious. It blinded me in both eyes and deafened me in both ears. This overwhelming sensation to go to sleep came over me, so I was concentrating on staying awake and staying alive."
Popaditch managed to stay alive and, with the aid of military doctors, regained some of his sight in one eye and most of his hearing. His days as a Marine gunny sergeant, however, were over.
"With 8 percent of vision in one eye and none in the other, you know, if you're not pulling triggers anymore in the Marine Corps, you're going to be looking for a new line of work," he said. "I'm not mad about it or anything like that. We're the tough team, and that's what we do — we locate, close with and destroy the enemy."
Popaditch left the Marines and, like many other wounded veterans, struggled to find a new career. Then he met Judith Paixo and Kevin Lombard, the founders of the Wounded Marine Careers Foundation, an organization that aims to help wounded and disabled Marine and Navy vets land jobs in the film industry.
"I found out when I got in the school, 'Wow, the guys that work on the other side of the camera, this is hard work,' " Popaditch said. "It's a very technical job. They are constantly updating their knowledge. They have to be very attention-to-detail-oriented, and I thought, 'Wow, this is Marine sort of work.' "
Lombard and his wife, Judith, secured a production facility/ school in San Diego using private and corporate donations and federal grants. With the aid of top media professionals, they designed a 10-week program to teach wounded veterans all they need to know to get started on a career in the film and TV industry. The vets learned editing, cinematography, lighting, still photography, script writing and sound production.
"The vision behind it is that same sort of skill set that makes you successful in the military," Popaditch said. "That attention to detail, discipline, teamwork, dependability — that same skill set makes you successful on a production crew. Obviously, the stakes are a little higher in one than the other, but it's the same skill set that makes you successful in both."
He and 18 other Marines graduated March 20 from the program's inaugural class. Popaditch specialized in sound production and has been working as a sound operator since graduation.
"It was very encouraging to get out of the hospital on a daily basis," said 23-year-old Lance Corporal Brett Sobaski. "You know, get out of the hospital and go learn something, start working towards your future and start working towards a skill set you can use in real life."
Sobaski also fought in the battle of Fallujah. The compounded effect of the blasts in the war zone led to bleeding in his brain. The bleeding increased until he had to have brain surgery, which caused him to lose a great deal of his visual field.
Even with a visual handicap, Sobaski graduated from the program with a specialization in still photography. He has been working as a photographer since graduation, but he is keeping his mind open to other opportunities in the industry. "There's so much you can do in the media industry," Sobaski said. "There's just so much room for creativity. The sky's the limit."
The Wounded Marine Career Foundation's next class starts in January, but this time, instead of being a student, Popaditch will be on staff as the training center's deputy director.
"The world doesn't end just because you're wounded," Popaditch said. "That same skill set that made you a good Marine is going to make you a good soundman and a good citizen. ... There's no victimization here. That is the way the ball bounces. You play the hand you get dealt and move on with your life."
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