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Peralta family calls ship christening 'bittersweet'

U.S. Marines, Sailors and guests honor the American and Navy flag during the USS Rafael Peralta 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.

GABRIELA GARCIA/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By JEANETTE STEELE | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: November 3, 2015

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — Days before he died in combat, Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta wrote a letter to his younger brother saying, “Be proud of me, bro, I’m going to make history.”

Ricardo Peralta remembered the letter aloud Saturday in Maine during the christening of the new Navy destroyer named for his fallen brother.

“I’ve been reading this letter for over a decade. It was right after I got off the USS Rafael Peralta that I felt, that’s the history he was talking about,” Ricardo Peralta said Monday, after returning home to San Diego.

“I thought I was witnessing that history ... that ship that holds the fighting spirit that he held in combat,” he said.

It was a long and emotional road to Maine’s Bath Iron Works for the Peralta family, who immigrated to San Diego from Mexico.

Rafael attended Morse High School and reportedly enlisted the day he received his Green Card in 2000. He was killed in November 2004 during a house-to-house clearing operation in Fallujah, Iraq.

Peralta is credited with scooping a live grenade under his body to save his brothers in arms.

The Marine Corps nominated the sergeant for the nation’s top military award, the Medal of Honor. But then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates downgraded the medal after a special panel of experts opined that Peralta’s head wounds rendered him incapable of conscious thought in his last moments.

Rosa Peralta, the Marine’s mother, wouldn’t accept the awarded Navy Cross for years, and a phalanx of Peralta supporters — most prominently San Diego County’s Rep. Duncan Hunter — lobbied several Pentagon administrations to upgrade the medal.

The family finally accepted the second-highest medal in June, with a nod toward the ship’s construction. Rosa Peralta said at the time that the ship “contains his spirit” and she wanted to the medal to have a home on the destroyer.

He is believed to be the first serviceman born in Mexico to have a naval warship named in his honor.

On Monday, Ricardo Peralta said he and his mother felt a sense of ease after the christening ceremony.

“It was bittersweet leaving the USS Rafael Peralta. For the first time, we had departed from a ceremony in which we felt there was something that represented Sgt. Peralta,” said the Marine’s brother, now 25, the same age as Rafael when he died.

“It was spiritual,” he concluded.

The family had already experienced more than its share of pain prior to Rafael’s death.

The children’s father was killed in 2001 when a company truck he was working on crushed him. Rafael’s fiancee was killed in late 2003 just before their planned wedding day, also in a truck accident.

Ricardo Peralta made good on a promise and enlisted in the Marine Corps for one tour.

Now a civilian again, he attended the shipyard christening event with his mother and sisters, Karen and Isela. Rosa Peralta blessed the ship and its crew in both English and Spanish and broke a bottle of champagne over the bow, following naval tradition.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller spoke at the ceremony.

“We’re here today to celebrate the life and spirit of a great Marine and an American hero,” Neller said.

He praised the Peralta family for raising a man of honor.

“This is in many ways a spiritual event, where the metal and material formed into this ship is named for a valiant and courageous warrior,” Neller said.

“We hope and pray the spirit of Rafael Peralta will be transferred to the men and women who will make this ship become more than just a ship, but a living entity totally committed to their mission, each other and the defense of our nation.”

Also in attendance were some of Rafael’s comrades from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, including at least one who credits the sergeant with saving his life by absorbing the grenade.

"Seeing that ship in person for the first time, it was breathtaking," said Robert Reynolds, who was six inches from Peralta during the blast. "His presence was truly felt."

Reynolds, now a 38-year-old corrections officer in Washington state, said having a ship named for his friend is "bigger than the Medal of Honor" because an Arleigh Burke destroyer, like this one, is expected to operate for at least three decades.

While the story surrounding a Medal of Honor may fade from memory after a few years, Reynolds said, "There's going to be a generation of men and women serving on her, and each one of them will know about the namesake."

The story of what happened on that November day in Fallujah became even more muddied in February 2014 after the Washington Post uncovered two Marines who said the heroism story was a lie.

The story suggested that several Marines concocted that version after the fact because they were afraid Peralta was killed by friendly fire, and because they wanted to honor him.

Other Marines present that day pushed back at the Post’s story, with Reynolds saying that he had no grenade shrapnel wounds only because of Peralta.

The Marine Corps reportedly knew about the dissenting views during its initial investigation. In the end, the officer in charge sided with the Marines who said Peralta purposefully smothered the grenade.

The new destroyer’s motto is “courageous to the end.”

The crest includes a Marine combat helmet, sergeant’s stripes and the Navy Cross and Purple Heart medals. It also bears two lions adapted from the Mexican Federal District Coat of Arms and an Aztec “war eagle,” both a nod to Peralta’s Mexican heritage.

The Peraltas have been saying since at least 2013 that Rafael identified with the Aztec warrior persona.

The destroyer is slated to be stationed in San Diego, possibly arriving in mid 2017.

Ricardo Peralta said Navy officials told him that when the ship transits past Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, where Rafael is buried, the crew will stand and render honors in the direction of his grave.

©2015 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com
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Sgt. Rafael Peralta
AP

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