RICHMOND, Va. — Almost 10 years after a Marine’s heroic death during some of the Iraq war’s heaviest fighting, a Glen Allen Marine veteran continues to hope the death will be recognized with a Medal of Honor.
William Berry, a longtime Henrico resident who served in the Iraq war, wrote a letter from jail that brought the fallen Marine’s rifle home to be put on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
Berry served as an armorer in Kuwait, Iraq and Japan after joining the Marines in 2003, making sure weapons were fully functioning and ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Occasionally, Berry cleaned weapons of Marines who died in battle, and one in particular stood out — the rifle of Navy Cross recipient Sgt. Rafael Peralta.
Berry had known Peralta, though not well. They were in the same company and briefly served together in Fallujah, Iraq.
“We lost a lot of good people out there,” Berry said.
Berry and another Marine, then-Cpl. Jason Waller, spent two hours at the Marine base in Okinawa, Japan, cleaning blood and shrapnel off the M-16 rifle, damaged from the 2004 grenade explosion in Fallujah that killed Peralta.
The rifle was headed to the National Museum of the Marine Corps for a display to honor Peralta, who covered a live grenade with his body to shield fellow Marines.
“He cared about his Marines. His Marines came first. His Marines ate before he ate,” Waller said. “We went the extra mile on his rifle to look presentable as he was as a Marine.”
The battles in Fallujah have been thrust again into the national spotlight following the recent retaking of the city by al-Qaeda-linked militants.
Months after the first battle of Fallujah, U.S. troops and Iraqi forces descended on the city about 45 miles west of Baghdad to regain control, making door-to-door searches to clear the area of insurgents.
Peralta, a Mexican immigrant who enlisted the same day he received his Green Card in 2000, led a door-to-door search on Nov. 15, 2004, and came under fire upon entering the squad’s seventh house of the day.
Peralta, 25, was shot and fell to the ground. After an exchange of fire, insurgents fled the house, throwing a grenade behind them that landed near Peralta’s head.
“Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, Sergeant Peralta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast and shielding fellow Marines only feet away,” his award citation reads.
Peralta’s was one of seven nominations for the Medal of Honor from the Global War on Terror that have made it to the secretary of defense. His case, however, did not meet the “no doubt” standard to receive the nation’s highest military honor after a panel of military officials and doctors determined Peralta’s head wound prior to the grenade’s explosion — identified in his autopsy — could have prevented purposeful motions.
His award was downgraded from the Medal of Honor to the Navy Cross despite testimonies of Marines present at his death.
The rare downgrade caught the attention of former California Congressman Duncan D. Hunter, also a Marine veteran who fought in Fallujah, who unsuccessfully pushed for an upgrade to the Medal of Honor after introducing new evidence including video and a pathology report.
So when Berry couldn’t find Peralta’s rifle on display when he visited the National Museum of the Marine Corps in 2008, he resolved to find out why.
“It seemed like it had been forgotten,” said Berry, now 32 and a cook at Kroger.
When Berry wrote a letter to the museum asking about the rifle’s location, he was in a Virginia Beach jail cell for his third driving while intoxicated offense. He said he started drinking “a lot” after leaving the Marines and being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Getting answers to this mystery was his way of honoring Peralta’s memory.
“I’ve never been really able to help” since leaving the Marines, he said. “And I can make a difference when I haven’t been able to in a long time ... taking in part of something that matters.”
With more time to think about his Marine life experiences, he penned and included a poem to the museum reflecting on the hours he spent cleaning Peralta’s rifle.
“ … I wipe the blood, now dry from age
I return the rifle, to be in a cage
Another may carry, held tight within
Not knowing where, the rifle has been.
Many are like it, but this one was yours … ”
... the poem read.
Berry’s detailed instructions about the last place he knew the rifle to be led museum staff directly to the locker in Japan that held Peralta’s rifle.
The rifle returned to U.S. soil in June 2010, four months after Berry’s letter. It will be included in the Global War on Terror exhibit after the museum completes an 80,000 square-foot expansion in 2018, said Gwenn Adams, public affairs director for the museum.
“It would be important to us, even if (Peralta’s award) is not upgraded,” she said. “It also gives the opportunity to tell the story of how Marines are willing to lay on a hand grenade to save their fellow Marines.”
Peralta’s death was one of several that still haunts Berry. Each Memorial Day, he tries to visit the National Museum of the Marine Corps and the Arlington National Cemetery, where one row enshrines at least three lost in his unit in Fallujah.
“Everybody I know thinks he deserves the Medal of Honor,” Berry said. “(Peralta) deserves it. His family deserves it. How about we cut the red tape and after all these years? Maybe something will happen.”