The U.S.S. Sgt. Rafael Peralta

Raoul Lowery-Contreras | Author, Murder in the Mountains

The 29th of July 2017 will be memorialized by 37 million Mexicans Americans and 125 million Mexicans in Mexico.

Why? Because for only the second time in history, the United States is commissioning a war ship named for a Mexican American hero; Mexican citizen United States Marine, Sgt. Rafael Peralta, 25, of Mexico City/Tijuana and San Diego, California.

Born in a Mexico City working neighborhood young Rafael was taken to the border’s burgeoning Tijuana as a boy. Relatives legally living in San Diego, California on the other side of the fence separating the U.S. and Mexico, sponsored Rafael’s student visa so he was totally legal. He attended Samuel B. Morse High School in the eastern edge of San Diego. In his senior year he met a Marine recruiter and fell in love with the Marines. Could join when he graduated? Yes but not with his student visa. He applied for a “Permanent Resident Card” (Green Card) sponsored by his legal resident aunt. The minute the card was granted, legal permanent U.S. resident Rafael Peralta entered San Diego’s Marine Corps Recruit Depot, the world famous Marine Boot Camp.

Like so many before him, me included, he ground his way through 13 weeks of a different universe dominated by screaming Drill Instructors, endless marching, and better food than most Marine recruits had ever enjoyed. From five in the morning until lights out at night every ounce of Peralta’s body was strained to its limit. The Marines trained Peralta how to shoot and react instantly to orders and circumstances. He graduated from Boot Camp then on to the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton. Next stop Iraq; Fallujah.

On November 15, 2004, Peralta led six Marines in a house-to-house search for Iraqi insurgents in the famous Battle of Fallujah.  The group took fire from a house. Peralta was shot in the face and body when he kicked in the front door.

An insurgent threw a grenade that landed on the floor next to wounded Peralta. He grabbed the grenade and hugged it to his chest, “without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own safety,” his Navy Cross citation says.

By hugging the exploding grenade to his chest Peralta saved the lives of several Marines a few feet away, Marine Corps officials told us.

Many thought Peralta would be awarded a Medal of Honor, the country’s highest award, but after a four year-long investigation — that was not to be.

There is much disappointment among Marines whose lives were saved by Peralta when he smothered the exploding grenade that should have killed them.  Robert Reynolds for example, a former Marine who credits Peralta with saving his life said the Pentagon’s decision insults his personal honor.

He is quoted in newspapers: “I feel like the Navy Cross is a cop-out,” says Reynolds of Ritzville, Wash. “I was 5 meters away. I saw what happened. I feel like they’re calling me a liar.”

Former Marine George Sabga, a lawyer and friend of the Peralta family, says leaders of the Marine Corps and U.S. Central Command agreed that Peralta’s heroism merited the Medal of Honor. President George W. Bush even mentioned Sergeant Peralta in a Memorial Day speech anticipating that the Marine Corps and Secretary of the Navy would recommend the Medal of Honor for Peralta. They did in fact make that recommendation.

Department of Defense civilians downgraded the award from Medal of Honor to Navy Cross, according to Sagba. This downgrading occurred despite President Bush’s apparent support for the Medal. The Navy Cross is the second highest medal the United States military awards. The Secretary of the Navy ordered that a ship be named for Peralta.

Peralta’s mother asks if the Medal was denied because her son was “Hispanic.”  No, despite no Hispanics receiving the Medal for service in Iraq or Afghanistan, 36 such Medals of Honor have been awarded to Mexican citizens, Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans since 1942.

In fact, the USS Rafael Peralta joins the USS Alfredo Gonzalez in the Navy fleet. U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Gonzalez was a hero in Vietnam. Unlike Peralta, Gonzalez was a native born American. Sgt. Rafael Peralta is the first Mexican citizen ever to have a United States Ship named for him.

I will be there to honor my countryman, the men whose lives he saved, the Marines and his ship. I will salute him and give him a hearty Oorah!

In his name – the Green Card Hero — I will work with the Veterans for New Americans that is organized to help U.S military veterans like Peralta, Green Carders, who, with a promise of citizenship, served and fought for the U.S. but who have been deported for one reason or another. ###

Contreras is the Author of THE ARMENIAN LOBBY & U.S. FOREIGN POLICY (Berkeley Press 2017) and THE MEXICAN BORDER: IMMIGRATION, WAR AND A TRILLION DOLLARS IN TRADE (Floricanto Press 2016), he formerly wrote for the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate– He served in the U.S. Marines – active and reserve – between 1959 and 1967.

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