Rafael Peralta was born in Mexico City and came to the U.S. with his family in search of better opportunities. He joined the Marines the day he got his green card and was deployed to Iraq, where he died in 2004 when he allegedly used his body to shield his fellow Marines from a grenade.
Now his memory is being honored by the USS Rafael Peralta, the first U.S. warship to be named after someone born in Mexico.
On Oct. 31 Peralta’s family and his fellow servicemen gathered at Maine’s Bath Iron Works Shipyard to christen the ship and honor the fallen Mexican immigrant who became an American hero.
“His legacy will carry on as long as the U.S. Marine Corps and the USS Rafael Peralta stays alive, because he has become a part of American history,” said his brother, Ricardo Peralta, during the launching of the ship.
The USS Peralta will be docked in San Diego as part of the Navy’s missile destroyer fleet and is expected to become operational next year. “We hope and pray that the spirit of Rafael Peralta will be transferred to the men and women who will help this ship become more than just a ship,” General Robert Neller said.
The dedication of the ship comes after a series of controversies surrounding Peralta’s death.
In 2008 Peralta was denied the Medal of Honor after former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates commissioned an investigation that found the Marine suffered a head injury and may have been unconscious before using his body to cover the grenade. The investigation questioned whether Peralta knowingly sacrificed his life. According to a U.S. Marines blog post by Sgt. Priscilla Sneden, “Hundreds of Marines, including those who served with him, were outraged upon hearing the decision.”
Peralta was instead awarded the Navy Cross. His mother Rosa Peralta initially rejected the award, arguing his son deserved the nation’s highest honor for valor.
According to the Navy Cross award citation, Peralta was mortally shot upon entering and raiding a house in Fallujah, Iraq. “After the initial exchange of gunfire, the insurgents broke contact, throwing a fragmentation grenade as they fled the building. The grenade came to rest near Sergeant 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 his fellow Marines only feet away,” states the 2004 citation.
The dedication of the warship may put some of the controversy to rest. According to a U.S. Navy press release the destroyer “will be able to conduct a variety of operations, from peacetime presence and crisis management to sea control and power projection.”
Although the USS Rafael Peralta is the first ship named after someone born in Mexico, it’s not the first one to be named after a Latino or even a Mexican-American, according to U.S. Naval Institute spokesman Scot Christenson.
The first U.S. ship to be named after a Mexican American was the Destroyer USS Gonzalez honoring fallen Marine Sergeant Alfredo Gonzalez, who was awarded the posthumous Medal of Honor for his actions in the Vietnam War. There’s also a ship named after famed Latino labor leader Cesar Chávez.
“The first ship to be named after a Hispanic service member was USS Garcia, which honored Puerto Rican Medal of Honor recipient Fernando Luis García. Other U.S. ships named for Hispanics include a submarine honoring South American liberator Simon Bolivar and a Military Sealift Command container ship honoring Korean War hero Baldomero Lopez,” Christenson told Fusion.