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San Diego's Ultimate Marine Has A Guidebook For Recruits

January 22, 2013 1:24 p.m.

GUEST

Nick Popaditch, 20 year Marine veteran, author of The Ultimate Marine Recruit Training Guidebook.

Related Story: San Diego's Ultimate Marine Has A Guidebook For Recruits

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Last week, a young man was arrested after he bolted from the Marine Corps recruit depot and ran across the tarmac at Lindbergh field. The San Diego harbor police told reporters the young recruit was not the first to run from MCRD to "get away from boot camp." It seems not everyone is cut out to be a U.S. marine. Young men and women considering whether they have what it takes, the ultimate marine recruit training guidebook, written by one of the iconic marines of the Iraq war, San Diego's own Nick Popaditch. And welcome to the show. I appreciate you coming in.

POPADITCH: Thanks for having me on, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: When you hear a story like that about a young recruit for whatever reason lost it during boot camp, what's your take on that?

POPADITCH: Well, I'm a big believer in the process. And some people adjust in different ways to it, and some adjust rather extremely and try and run from it. But I think the process works so well, all they do is get him back in training and it will work. I haven't met the one yet who couldn't be trained.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. So this man really -- I mean, couldn't take it anymore for whatever reason. And he's brought back in, and what happens to them him?

POPADITCH: Well, it depends, it's a case by case basis.

CAVANAUGH: Sure.

POPADITCH: But the reason some individuals would run like that is because the manner in which the training is done is so foreign from what is the norm for young Americans. And so many aren't used to it. And as a drill instructor, what I've seen the ones that often have trouble with recruit training are the ones you'd never expect. And these are ones who have had nothing but praise in their lives and have been top-shelf people in the civilian world, and they come in the Marine Corps, and the manner of learning is so different, the objectives are so different. And the ability to subordinate yourself to a bigger purpose than yourself, and that's very strange to a lot of individuals, a very worthy way to live your life. And that's what I try to instruct, serving something bigger than yourself will make you a better person. I call it the win win scenario. The one thing we know in this nation is what wins in combat is character. And a lot of people think of the physical aspect of it. We're going to train your brain how to think under extreme situations. When young Americans come in there, they're used to taking a test in high school. We're going to make you recall information when you're fatigued, scared, in a confusing environment, then we're going to make you recall information, and that's a very difficult situation for young Americans to learn. But once they learn how to do that. How far to calm their mind down in the middle of chaos, put that physical duress, how to put that on the backburner and think under those circumstances, they become incredible thinkers. And then they can bring their personal talents into this equation and do great things. Now, it's a win-win because that wins in combat for us, but you get to take all that with you when you leave.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the essence of being a marine, as you just said, you say character. Lots of people would say, you know, you can't teach character. You either have it or you don't. But that's one of the essential elements of marine training, isn't it?

POPADITCH: Absolutely, absolutely. And I'll just give you some simple examples. And we have those core values. Courage, honor, commitment. And we're going to teach you those things, and we're going to teach you 14 leadership straights to good good decisions. But just the first one, courage. There's two types. Most people think of physical courage. Being brave when you think you're going to get hurt. That's an easy one to teach. We expose you to it a few times and you get over it. And you realize nothing is as scary as you think it is. But the harder one is moral courage. That's one most Americans don't learn. When they're friends are trying to convince them to do the wrong thing, to have that courage to say no. We hold you accountable for that moral courage. Being around something and not stopping it is the same as doing it. And we will teach that. Honor, saying you're going to do the right thing is easy, but actually doing, that's a whole different thing. So we do in training teach you what the right thing is to do, and then we'll put you in the situation where that's the hardest thing for you to do.

CAVANAUGH: Now, there's a lot of theory in this book. There is plenty of theory. The kind of thing that you were just talking about, are the reasons behind the way recruits are trained. But there's a lot a lot of actual practical information in this guidebook. You take us to the first day at MCRD, off the bus, and onto the yellow footprints.

POPADITCH: When I joined the Marine Corps, I was 18 years old, and I was convinced that was the most right decision to ever make in my life. And five seconds on those footprint, I thought, what the the heck was I thinking? And that's pretty common. Most individuals will think that when they get there. So I don't expose any secrets. They'd be a disserve to the core and the individual. But I share a couple things with them from experience. When you get on thosiel ole footprints, that's the first time you're going to see a real drill instructor, and things are going to start happening really fast, and you're going to start getting bombarded with information. And the second thing is to let them know that fear they're feeling right then, every marine who's ever served with rare exception has felt that same fear right then and there, and let them know that's normal. Just push through it, you'll be fine.

CAVANAUGH: And you explain recruit language F. A new recrate wants to speak with a drill instructor, he wouldn't want to talk to you.

POPADITCH: You never use personal pronouns. It's really funny. It's a whole different languages. And it seems like a crazy way to communicate. But it has a great purpose of the we take all the ambiguity out of your language. Everything you say will be very precise. You can't just say over there, you have to say very specifically where you're talking about. And you can't just say them, the enemy is over there with them. Who would that be? You have to learn to speak very specifically, and so everything you do in recruit training has a very specific purpose. And you'll never know what that purpose is.

[ LAUGHTER ]

POPADITCH: I try to explain some of them. But you have to have faith that we've been doing this for over 240 years now and winning our nation's battles. It's time-tested, it work, it builds leaders in the nation, on the battlefield.

CAVANAUGH: Now, yeah, I was just going to say, you talked earlier about the fact that a lot of people who have difficulty in marine training are precisely the people who have been praised for their efforts. Because there's not a heck of a lot of praise coming from a drill instructor, from what I read in your book. There's also the idea of don't look at the drill instructor, a lot of shouting. Everybody who's seen a movie knows that.

POPADITCH: You're going to get all five of your senses bombarded all the time.

CAVANAUGH: Is there an overall reason for that?

POPADITCH: To teach courage, honor, commitment. And that last one is commitment. Individuals coming into the Marine Corps, coming out of, say, high school, a lot of times in high school your leaders are the ones with the most God-given talent. So they become leaders but they know nothing about leadership. In the Marine Corps, we're going to train you to be a leader. The lowest private on the battlefield, he's in a situation on a street of Iraq or Afghanistan, and he has to make a life or death decision about whether or not to pull the trigger. And he has to weigh a lot of facts. And if he let's this individual go, is he going to endanger somebody else's life tomorrow? Another citizen or American troop? Or if he engages and misses, is he going to recruit a whole new tribe of enemy? So we're going to train you to think, to do these thing, and it's not an easy process, and it requires commitment, and to teach commitment are a lot of those abstractions we talked about. You're rarely praised, so can you fight through adversity? The lesson is always hidden somewhere else. We may scientific you with something, and when you fail we punish you. But the task wasn't the objective. We were testing the commitment. Can you fight through adversity? When I was a young marine, one of the greatest lesobs I ever got was -- it was as I corporal, he said anybody can sit around and talk about core values in the middle of a sunshiny day. The real marine is the one who can do it in four in the morning, when you're cold and exhausted.

CAVANAUGH: Let's talk more about your personal experience with the Marine Corps. You were the subject of that famous photograph holding a cigar in front of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. But you already had an extensive career before that.

POPADITCH: I was a career marine by this point. I had been in quite a while. I was a staff sergeant and loved it, loved every minute of it. The core gave me so much more than I ever gave it. It's a great organization, and it allows you to do all those things that when I was 18 years old, if you told me someday I'll be halfway around the world -- in the core I got to do those things. And where that photo was taken in Baghdad, what a great day to serve in the core. That was the day that the Iraqi people and our military came together as allies. We said we were going to work together to make a better life, a better country here in Iraq. And I loved every day of serving over there.

CAVANAUGH: One of those days, you were very badly injured. You lost an eye in Fallujah, it caused your retirement. What's it like returning to civilian life after that kind of a career?

POPADITCH: One of the hardest things for me, life after the Marine Corps, and every day I was in the Marine Corps, I always had mission. I always knew what I was doing and I always knew that what I was doing was making the world a better place. And figuring out where that is in the civilian population takes a little bit of doing. And I looked at my skill set, and I said, well, I've been a drill instructor. And I had been to combat, and I thought I was reasonably good at those things. I figured high school teacher! That's my calling.

[ LAUGHTER ]

POPADITCH: So I went to college here at San Diego state to be a school teacher, and just finishing that up. So finding where your calling is in the civilian world, I guess that's an individual thing.

CAVANAUGH: You thought struck fear in every high schooler's heart.

[ LAUGHTER ]

CAVANAUGH: You've always run for Congress twice, most recently against Susan Davis. Had arch the mission-oriented world of the core, why do you want to go into politics?

POPADITCH: Change! Change. I look at where things are and where leadership is and where it can be better. And let me commend congresswoman Davis, when an honorable lady, and she felt a great campaign against me. Very honorable. And in politics you see so much dirtiness slung round, and in her case, nothing. Very honorable race. We put our ideas out there, and the constituents chose hers. And I commend her for that and support her for giving me such an honorable race and beating me fair and square. But I want to lead. I want to lead in this nation. And I didn't particularly care for the way the country was going, I think there's a lot of issues in our economy that are being rathered irresponsibly.

CAVANAUGH: Sounds like you're not finished with politics.

POPADITCH: Oh, I think I am.

CAVANAUGH: I noted your guidebook has a lot of pictures but there's only one female marine. Do you have a problem with women in court?

POPADITCH: No, absolutely not! There's one marine standard. Unfortunately most of my experience has been with male marines because I served in all combat unit, and I was a drill instructor. But we have one standard for all marines, and so it's equally applicable for males or females. And because most of the pictures came here from the Marine Corps recruit depot in San Diego where there are no females. The

CAVANAUGH: I gotcha. What do you say to young people who say they really, really want to become a marine? What do you have them consider? Besides reading this very informative book?

POPADITCH: Can you commit to something? Can you make your word your bond? Because it's really it's some very simple things like that. You see that out in the civilian world, and back to the political world, when you raise your right hand and you swear an oath, that should mean something. And we make it mean something in the core. When you raise your right hand and you swear an oath, do you really mean it? That's one big thing. And can you commit yourself to a life bigger than yourself? In our case, semper fi, God, country, core. And we don't care what God that is for you. But can you commit yourself to things bigger than yourself?

CAVANAUGH: I would ask if you would share maybe one secret as a former drill instructor. When you see a young recruit who's really having a hard time, fumbling around, out of their comfort zone, do you ever feel sorry for them?

POPADITCH: Well, I'm not going to betray any secrets.

[ LAUGHTER ]

POPADITCH: But what I will say is it's very common. Most Americans are not used to thinking under those circumstances. We know that, that's why we create that circumstance. We create a chaotic environment, put you under duress, we fatigue Uand then we bombard your senses with all kinds of crazy stimuli, and then expect you to think. And you can see scholars stumbling who could barely even say their name under those circumstances. That's the beauty of this program. Once you learn to think under those circumstances, you are a thinker, more than most intellectuals you'll run across in the civilian world. And critical thinking. Everything you do as a marine, you have to be able it look at it from the other guy's perspective, and as a recruit look at it from the drill instructor's perspective, but most importantly when you're in that combat situation, can you look at it from that civilian on the street's perspective. If I was him looking at me, what would I think of me? Or if I was the enemy in this town, how would I try and kill me? We make great critical thinkers. We have a great program for that.