The U.S. Navy’s newest guided-missile destroyer, USS Rafael Peralta (DDG 115), named for a fallen U.S. Marine Corps sergeant, was commissioned in San Diego Saturday.
The ship’s namesake, Sgt. Rafael Peralta grew up in San Diego and died in combat in Iraq on Nov. 15, 2004.
General Robert B. Neller, 37th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, was one of the speakers at the ceremony, which took place at Naval Air Station North Island.
He said the ship carries the “spirit of Sgt. Peralta” who was, in his words, “a man of character and virtue.”
“We need more people like him in our world,” Neller said, thanking the Peralta family.
Peralta, 25, was a scout team leader assigned to the “Lava Dogs” of Company A, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.
Peralta’s team was clearing houses as part of Operation Phantom Fury during the second battle of Fallujah in Iraq. Though not personally assigned to enter the buildings, the sergeant chose to do so anyway. While going into a room inside one of those homes, Peralta was hit several times with gunfire from an AK-47 and was critically wounded.
According to the U.S. Navy, two fellow Marines on Peralta’s team rushed into the room and returned fire. The insurgents threw a grenade at the Marines. The Marines with Peralta tried to escape from the room but couldn’t.
“Still conscious on the floor, reports indicate that [Peralta] was able to smother the grenade under his body, absorbing the majority of the lethal blast and shrapnel, killing him instantly, but saving the lives of his fellow Marines,” the Navy said in a press release.
Peralta was an immigrant from Mexico who came to San Diego with his family as a teenager. He was a 1997 graduate of Morse High School; he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2000, immediately after qualifying for a green card. He was naturalized as an American citizen while serving in the Marine Corps.
"Sgt. Peralta’s legacy and the stories that have been told will forever be part of this ship. All he ever wanted was to be an American – to serve his country," Neller said.
Earlier this week, 10 service members from nine countries became U.S. citizens aboard USS Peralta.
Peralta's sister, Icela, was at that naturalization ceremony and said seeing the service members follow in her brother's footsteps aboard his namesake ship was deeply moving.
"It’s a beautiful place; there couldn’t be no better place because they’re all serving members," she said. "It's just a great example for all immigrants from all countries, that you just have to focus and do what you want to do, there’s no limits."
Icela said seeing USS Peralta morph from only parts into a completed Navy ship has been an honor. The vessel will forever carry her brother's memory.
"Now seeing my brother – he never came back – but whenever I got to see this ship coming to San Diego, I know he came back to San Diego in spirit, and he’s protecting our country," she told NBC 7.
USS Peralta is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer. It will be homeported at Naval Base San Diego and will operate with a crew of more than 300 sailors.
Saturday’s event marked the ship’s formal acceptance into the U.S. Navy’s fleet. Neller said the commissioning was more than just another ceremony.
“It marks the commemoration of a life and, I say, the immortality of a hero,” he told the crowd.
Neller said Peralta will be forever remembered for his service and for his enormous heart.
“The love in his heart so great, that those that had the privilege of knowing him felt it. It was powerful; it was infectious,” he added.
Neller said Peralta was an integral part of the U.S. Marine Corps and, now, this ship will also fulfill an integral role.
In addition to the Navy's ship, Peralta received another honor this week: on Tuesday, the San Diego City Council declared July 25 "Sgt. Rafael Peralta Day."