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Warship named for valiant Marine ready for Navy

By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 2, 2017

Following a special Friday ceremony in Maine, the Navy is scheduled to take possession of the guided-missile destroyer Rafael Peralta, named for the valiant San Diego Marine killed in Iraq in 2004.

The $1.5 billion vessel successfully completed initial sea trials on Dec. 16. The Peralta is the first destroyer of its kind built by the Bath Iron Works following a four-year lull in the Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyer procurement program.

The warship is slated to remain at the shipyard in Maine until the spring. Then its crew will begin the long voyage to San Diego, the destroyer’s future homeport, where it will be officially commissioned.

“It’s a small ceremony, but it’s a big moment in the life of a ship,” said retired Navy Capt. Bob Kopas, the San Diego Navy League’s vice chairman of the Peralta’s commissioning committee. “The Navy is taking control of the ship for the first time. For the commander and many in the crew, they’ve been preparing years for this event.”

In a similar ceremony in 2009, Kopas took command of the amphibious assault ship Makin Island, which also is homeported in San Diego.

Officials at Bath Iron Works and Naval Sea Systems Command declined comment on Thursday, but Marines cheered the news that the warship is one day closer to arriving in San Diego.

“Our everyday lives are better because of Sgt. Peralta. He’s a constant reminder to us about what it means to be a Marine,” said Lt. Col. Stephen “Slade” Mount, commander of Wounded Warrior Battalion West.

Mount’s headquarters is located within Camp Pendleton’s Sgt. Rafael Peralta Wounded Warrior Center. Peralta’s portrait not only graces the wall of the complex’s main building, but his family continues to attend functions there, including the unit’s annual Marine Corps birthday ball.

Peralta’s mother, Rosa, is the sponsor of the destroyer. A great naval honor, she will bestow the name upon the warship during its formal commissioning — tentatively scheduled for late July or early August — by uttering “Man our ship and bring her to life,” a command that triggers an eruption of patriotic applause from the crew and audience.

Both the Marine complex and the Navy destroyer reflect efforts by both services to keep Peralta’s heroic name alive following his tragic death.

Sgt. Peralta died on Nov. 15, 2004 during the brutal Second Battle of Fallujah.

Assigned to A Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, he led a scout team as they cleared buildings of insurgents. After storming into their seventh house that day, Peralta immediately drew enemy automatic weapons fire.

Wounded, he fell to the floor and fleeing insurgents tossed a grenade that skittered to a rest near his head. Without hesitation, Peralta snatched the explosive to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast to spare the lives of his team, according to his citation for the Navy Cross, America’s second-highest award for battlefield valor.

Although the Marine Corps recommended Peralta for the Medal of Honor, in 2008 Secretary of Defense William Gates downgraded the commendation. He expressed concerns first raised by a review panel that the Marine might have been too wounded to realize what he was doing with the grenade.

The Gates decision sparked an effort that continues inside the military and on Capitol Hill to upgrade Peralta’s award to the Medal of Honor, but his successors in the Pentagon — Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel — declined to overturn the original ruling.

In 2015, Peralta’s mother accepted his posthumous Navy Cross and pledged to donate it to the warship, where it would be prominently displayed.

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a former Marine who fought in the First Battle of Fallujah in 2004, said Friday’s scheduled hand off of the warship to the Navy should serve as “an awesome reminder of the sacrifice and valor” of Peralta, a moment to pause and remember the hero’s family and spark a new push for the Pentagon to reopen his Medal of Honor case.

“Three guys are alive today because of the Marine’s heroism,” said Hunter.

The Alpine Republican vowed post a Friday letter to Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the new Secretary of Defense, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, urging them to award Peralta the nation’s highest battlefield decoration.

Born in Mexico City in 1979, Peralta’s family brought him to the United States. A graduate of Samuel F. B. Morse High School who later attended San Diego Community College, Peralta did not receive his green card until he enlisted in the Marines in 2000 but he died an American citizen.

He is buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma.

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©2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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Gen. Robert B. Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, and guests walk alongside the USS Rafael Peralta before its christening ceremony at General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, Bath, Maine, Oct. 31, 2015. The destroyer was named after Marine Corps Sgt. Rafael Peralta who was killed during the second battle of Fallujah in 2004.

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