This weekend the U.S. Navy commissioned its latest Arleigh Burke-guided missile destroyer in San Diego, California. The USS Rafael Peralta (DDG 115), a 9,200-ton warship, will be one of the most versatile in the fleet, able to hunt for submarines, defend against air threats and enemy surface ships and engage ballistic missiles. But the name behind the ship carries a tragic and complicated story of its own.
The ship is named in honor of U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Rafael Peralta, killed in Iraq during the second battle of Fallujah during Operation Iraqi Freedom in November 2004. Peralta was shot, possibly by friendly fire, as his squad was engaged by insurgents as they cleared houses within the city.
During the firefight, a grenade thrown by an insurgent landed near where Peralta had fallen. According to his military award Peralta had reached out, pulled the grenade to him and absorbed the blast, saving the lives of his squad mates.
The Marines immediately approved a recommendation that Peralta be awarded the Medal of Honor. Peralta’s actions that day met all the criteria to be awarded the nation’s highest military honor. It took four years before an award was announced. It would not be the Medal of Honor but the Navy Cross, the second highest military decoration that can be awarded to a member of the U.S. Navy.
During those years, three different secretaries of defense denied the Marines request and, for the first time in a Medal of Honor case, a scientific review panel reviewed the case years after Peralta’s death. The panel concluded that Peralta’s initial wound was so severe that Peralta could not have consciously made the decision to pull the grenade close to him.
Two years ago, a story appeared alleging that the entire story of Peralta’s heroics were fabricated, simply over guilt from the fact his fellow Marines had been responsible for his death.
The ship itself is an important part of the military’s future, but the name behind it is a complicated, disputed part of the War on Terror’s past.
USS Rafael Peralta (DDG 115) is the 65th Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer built for the U.S. Navy and only the second of the class to be commissioned since 2012. Peralta is the third of the “restart” Arleigh Burke destroyers and will immediately be one of the most advanced destroyers in the fleet. The “restart” ships were ordered following the decision by the Navy to cancel the CG(X) program and reduce the number of DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class guided missile destroyers from 10 to three. Peralta is only the second Arleigh Burke destroyer to be placed into service since 2012.
Peralta was built by General Dynamics Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. The ship is 509 feet in length and can reach speeds of more than 30 knots and is equipped with the Aegis Baseline 9D Combat System that includes significant modifications to the ship’s primary radar system, the AN-SPY-1D(v). These modifications include an Integrated Air and Missile Capability (IAMD) that incorporates the ability to engage traditional air threats (aircraft, anti-ship missiles) and ballistic missiles simultaneously.
Previous versions of the Aegis Combat System did not have this capability, meaning that when attempting to track or engage a ballistic missile, the ship was unable to defend against aircraft or non-ballistic missiles and vice versa. With the upgraded Aegis system, the ship will be able to link its radar with those of other ships and aircraft to provide a complete tactical picture allowing for a more successful employment of resources and weapons.
Raphael Peralta was born in Mexico City on April 7, 1979. His family soon moved to Tijuana, but his mother was very worried that Rafael would eventually get caught up in the gang violence that was sweeping through Mexico. With a student visa sponsored by his aunt who was living in San Diego, Peralta came to the U.S. to attend high school and the rest of his family soon followed. According to the Washington Post, his mother had become charmed by a Marine Corps commercial where a young Marine bravely faced a dragon and defeated the monster. Rosa Peralta encouraged her son to be like that young man on the television.
With only a student visa, Peralta was unable to join the Marines upon graduating from Morse High School in 1997. Peralta loved his adopted country and adorned his bedroom walls with the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. On the day he received his Green Card in 2000, Rafael Peralta fulfilled his mother’s wishes, and he took the first step in becoming like that young man in the Marine Corps commercial by enlisting in the Marines. Thirteen weeks after entering the service, he would add his Marine Corps basic training graduation certificate to his bedroom wall.
Today people remember Rafael as someone who had an outgoing personality and was quick to make friends. He lifted weights, played soccer and loved to dance. During his brief time in the Marine Corps he experienced his own share of personal tragedy. His father, who had become an American citizen, was killed in a tragic accident in September 2001 when Rafael was deployed overseas. Then in 2003, his fiancée who was traveling to Hawaii where Peralta was stationed to get married, had to return home because her mother had died. As his fiancée was driving with her sister, the truck they were riding in crashed and rolled over, killing her as well.
Peralta was in Iraq when Operation Phantom Fury kicked off in November 2004 as the Marine Corps and Iraqi and British forces moved back into Fallujah to wrest the city away from 4,000 insurgents who controlled the city. The fighting was some of the heaviest urban combat Marines had waged since Vietnam, and much of the fighting would be house-to-house.
On November 6, 2004, Peralta wrote two letters home: one to his sister and another to his brother. He encouraged his sister to not be lazy and work hard at school. To his 14-year-old little brother he told him, “Just think about God and we will all be together again. If anything happens to me, just remember I lived my life to the fullest and I’m happy with what I lived.”
Raphael Peralta died in Fallujah, Iraq on November 15, 2004.
The day before he was killed, Peralta had volunteered to be part of an undermanned squad that would be going house-to-house clearing buildings of any insurgents who were hiding in the structures.
According to news and government reports, upon entering the seventh house of the day, Peralta and the squad he was with came under instant fire from insurgents who were waiting. As the Marines raced through the open door, they were met with enemy fire and a firefight began. Peralta was in the front of the group and as a result he was likely hit by friendly fire and he fell to the floor wounded. As he lay on the floor, an insurgent tossed a grenade through a window at the squad of Marines. Peralta reached out, grabbed the grenade and pulled it close to his body. As it exploded, most of the shrapnel slashed into Peralta and saved the lives of his fellow Marines.
At least, that is how the story began.
According to Stars and Stripes, who obtained official documents related to Peralta’s death, five Marines “claimed to have seen Peralta pull the grenade toward his body, and one said he saw him reach for it but wasn’t sure whether he grabbed it.” Eyewitness accounts confirmed the initial reports from the battlefield, and in early 2005 the commanding officer of the 1st Marine Division recommended Peralta for the Medal of Honor.
Despite the eyewitness accounts, the waters were muddied just a few months later in April 2005 when the preliminary report from the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Peralta stated that his head wound would have been “immediately incapacitating and nearly instantly fatal. He (Peralta) could not have executed any meaningful motions.”
Not to be outdone, another group of physicians reviewed the autopsy report but not Peralta’s body. The two neurosurgeons and single neurologist disagreed with the conclusions put forth by the medical examiner. They believed that Peralta would in fact have been capable of the actions that had been described by the eyewitnesses.
In 2008, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates approved the Navy and Marine Corps recommendation to award Peralta the Medal of Honor. With Gate’s signature, it was a guarantee that President George W. Bush would agree and authorize the award. However, a complaint had been made to the Pentagon’s inspector general pushing the conclusions of the medical examiner who insisted that Peralta could have in no way consciously pulled the grenade to his body. The inspector general informed Gates that if he did not look further into the story before moving forward with the award an investigation would be launched.
Gates choose to look deeper into Peralta’s death and, according to the Washington Post, took the unprecedented move of assembling a team of experts to delve into the possibilities. Five individuals examined the information, including a retired general, a Medal of Honor recipient, two civilian pathologists and one civilian neurosurgeon.
Each individual reported to Gates that they would deny the Medal of Honor to Peralta. Gates agreed and instead would recommend that Peralta be awarded the Navy Cross instead—military’s almost-highest decoration awarded for valor in combat, second only to the Medal of Honor itself.
Yet when reading the citation of the Peralta’s Navy Cross award one cannot help but be confused. Here is Peralta’s citation for the Navy Cross:
For extraordinary heroism while serving as Platoon Guide with 1st Platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 3d Marines, Regimental Combat Team 7, 1st Marine Division, in action against Anti-Coalition Forces in support of Operation AL FAJR, in Fallujah, Iraq on 15 November 2004. Clearing scores of houses in the previous three days, Sergeant Peralta’ asked to join an under strength squad and volunteered to stand post the night of 14 November, allowing fellow Marines more time to rest. The following morning, during search and attack operations, while clearing the seventh house of the day, the point man opened a door to a back room and immediately came under intense, close-range automatic weapons fire from multiple insurgents. The squad returned fire, wounding one insurgent. While attempting to maneuver out of the line of fire, Sergeant Peralta was shot and fell mortally wounded. 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 fellow Marines only feet away. Sergeant Peralta succumbed to his wounds. By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty, Sergeant Peralta reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.
Did you catch that? “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.” So how could the Navy Cross citation read this way if it had been decided by the independent team of experts that Peralta could not have done this as his injuries were too severe to make a conscious decision? Like the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross is an award that is not given out for just showing up—it is investigated and certified for accuracy.
In early 2014 the Washington Post ran an article where two former members of Peralta’s squad claimed that the entire story had been fabricated “spontaneously in the minutes after he was mortally wounded - likely because several of the men in the unit feared they might have been the ones who shot him.” However, others who provided the original eyewitness accounts of Peralta’s heroics are maintain they are accurate and without hesitation suggest that the only reason they are alive today is because Sgt. Peralta saved their lives.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican congressman from San Diego and a former Marine officer himself, has been leading the charge to get Peralta the Medal of Honor. Hunter has pressed the case with two of Gates’ successors, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel, who both declined to change the award. With James Mattis now running the Pentagon, Hunter says he is hopeful that the new secretary of defense will make the right decision and do what his predecessors would not do: Award Rafael Peralta the Medal of Honor.
The bottom line is that, if one is to believe the wording of the citation for the Navy Cross, Rafael Peralta is deserving of the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, politics and the bureaucratic leviathan known as the U.S. government has mucked this up. By all accounts Sgt. Rafael Peralta deserves the Medal of Honor. Of the six Marines who made the initial statements, only one has changed his story. The reason for this we will never truly know.
It has been nearly 13 years since Rafael Peralta gave his life for the adopted country he loved, and still the debate over the decision to not award him the Medal of Honor lingers. As the Navy does a noble thing in naming a ship after him, Rep. Hunter is still trying to get the Department of Defense to do the right thing and award the Medal of Honor to Sgt. Rafael Peralta.
Rep. Hunter has perhaps summed the whole thing up best: “When you have young Marines saying, ‘I’m not dead, because he jumped on the grenade,’ that’s all we need to know. There’s no reason to complicate this.”