Rafael Peralta - Home of the Brave
Note: this entry, originally from April 2006, is re-posted as part of Mudville's Memorial Day 2006 salute to the fallen.
Marine Sergeant Rafael Peralta
Nominated for the Medal of Honor
“Be proud of being an American. Our father came to this country, became a citizen because it was the right place for our family to be.”
—Sergeant Peralta’s final letter to his younger brother, Ricardo.
Rafael Peralta was not born in America, but he died defending her. It’s the stuff you hear about in boot camp, about World War II and Tarawa Marines who won the Medal of Honor,” said Corporal Rob Rogers, one of Peralta’s platoon mates.i
A Mexican immigrant, Peralta joined the Marines the day he received his green card. His love for America was no secret; it showed in everything he did. Even the walls of his bedroom were a testament to his patriotism. On them he had hung a picture of his boot camp graduation and replicas of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.ii
But ultimately it was Marine Sergeant Peralta’s actions on November 15, 2004, while serving as part of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment that proved the depth of his devotion to his country. Just days prior, Peralta had sat down and wrote his first and final letters to his brother and youngest sister:
“Tomorrow, at 19:00 hours (7 p.m.), we are going to declare war in the holy city of Fallujah. We are going to defeat the insurgents. Watch the news, it’s going to be all over. Be proud of me, bro, I’m going to make history and do something that I always wanted to do.”iii
As his story reveals, Marine Sergeant Rafael Peralta kept his word. True to the Marine code, he remained Semper Fidelis.
It had been almost a year since her tragic death, and yet still, Rafael Peralta’s recurring dream about his fiancée, Maritca Alvarez, just wouldn’t go away.
Maritca and Rafael had met in a Tijuana nightclub two years before their engagement. Even after his family moved to San Diego, his father continued the commute to Tijuana, where he worked as a diesel mechanic. In September 2001, Rafael had been deployed overseas the day his father died. It was Sergeant Peralta’s memory of the pride his father had displayed the day he had become an American citizen that had in part inspired him to become a marine. That meant his mother, Rosa, a housekeeper, would be forced to face her husband’s death without her oldest son at her side. Yet it wasn’t before long that Sergeant Peralta began to assume his father’s mantle as head of the family.iv
But the death of Peralta’s father would be just the first in a series of tragic events that would soon unfold. Just days before Rafael and Maritca were to be married, Maritca’s mother died. Then, while traveling to bury her, Maritca herself was killed in a truck accident. Having just lost his future mother-in-law and wife in a matter of days, Rafael and his mother bonded in the way that only people who have lost the loves of their life can.v
So when Sergeant Peralta shared his recurring dream with his mother, she remembered it. Rafael said he would see Maritca’s face. She would approach him. And then Maritca would say that she had come to take him with her so that they could be together again.
He knew his actions in battle might one day turn his dream about Maritca into reality, and he had prepared himself and those he loved should he ever meet his fate on the battlefield. “He said he was ready to die,” said his oldest sister, Icela Donald. “He had reconciled with God and (he wanted Rosa) to be strong. She had to take care of my little sister and brother. He would always tell my mom that there was a possibility that he might not come back.”vi
And perhaps it was this sentiment that drove Sergeant Peralta to sit down and write letters to his younger siblings, Karen and Ricardo, the night before the Battle of Fallujah began. “Just think about God and we will all be together again,” he wrote. “If anything happens to me, just remember I lived my life to the fullest and I’m happy with what I lived.” In Karen’s letter he added, “Be good and do your best at school. Don’t be lazy.”vii
Education and hard work—these were two things Sergeant Peralta valued. After completing elementary and junior high school in Tijuana, his family moved to San Diego, where he graduated from Morse High School before taking classes at San Diego City College. It was in 1997 while attending high school that he first wanted to enter the military. But his pride in America and love for his new country were not enough to overcome his non-citizen status. If his dream of becoming a US Marine were to be realized, he would have to wait until 2000 to receive his green card.
And that’s exactly what he did.
The very day he became a legal resident, Rafael Peralta enlisted to become a United States Marine. In so doing, he joined the long, proud history of the United States Marine Corps. In all he did, it was that lineage, that long line of all the heroic Marines who had come before him, that Peralta strived to honor—especially that fateful day in Fallujah, Iraq.
For most Americans, the very name conjures up the ghastly images that shocked the nation on March 31, 2004. It was a scene reminiscent of the Black Hawk Down incident in Mogadishu, Somalia. The bodies of four American contractors—individuals who had gone to Iraq to help citizens rebuild their nation—had been torched and dragged through the streets of Fallujah before being hung from ropes tied atop a Euphrates River bridge as mobs of cheering, laughing Saddam loyalists, both young and old, danced in jubilant celebration.
That the city of Fallujah would become the most difficult battle waged in Iraq was hardly a surprise. Located just 40 miles from Baghdad, the Sunni-city had become a rat’s nest filled with Baathists and Islamic Fundamentalists seething with anti-American hatred. The most wanted terrorist in Iraq, Jordanian born, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, had helped turn Fallujah into a base of operations for his terror group. Zarqawi became widely known to the world when he began appearing in videotaped beheadings. But his history of brutality and terror are decades long, prompting the U.S. government to offer a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture.
The horrifying scene of American civilians dangling from the Euphrates River bridge opened up a debate about how to handle Fallujah. Some argued for immediate action, while others supported waiting. Yet with the historic Iraqi elections scheduled for January 30, 2005, everyone agreed that for elections to go forward the Battle of Fallujah must be fought and won. The city was filled with jihadists eager to murder the over 8 million Iraqis determined to exercise their newfound freedom. Defeat, therefore, was not an option.
The 10,000 marines, soldiers, and Iraqi troops gearing up for the massive 11-day assault knew the dangerous nature of urbanized warfare. The city’s labyrinth of buildings and alleys would force them to go room-to-room, building-to-building, with danger lurking around every corner. The insurgents hidden inside these building would be thousands in number and among the fiercest and best trained. They would also be armed to the hilt. Out of Fallujah’s roughly 1,000 city blocks, 203 had weapons caches and ammunition storehouses. Weapons found included 1,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines, 800 mortar rounds, hundreds of grenades, 86 anti-tank guided missiles, 6,000 artillery and mortar fuses, 87 122mm and 107mm rockets, 328 rounds for recoilless artillery pieces, and uncounted numbers of Kalashnikov automatic rifles and other small arms.viii
But even more lethal than their weapons were the tactics they employed, which included: using 60 of Fallujah’s 100 mosques as firing stations to shoot at U.S. and Iraqi forces; waving white flags in surrender and then opening fire; booby trapping just about anything imaginable and planting over 650 Improvised Explosive Devices (IED); using injured enemy fighters as bait to lure U.S. medics to rush to their aid before detonating grenades; threatening to murder those civilians who had yet to flee only to then use them as shields during the battle; and using three of Fallujah’s hospitals as defensive positions from which to launch RPG and fire machine guns at American and Iraqi forces.ix
In sum, the Battle of Fallujah would be pure hell, and every soldier and marine going in knew it. But more than that, almost to a man, each one believed it was something that needed to be done. Among these was Sergeant Rafael Peralta.
Lance Corporal T.J. Kaemmerer, a combat correspondent who had been attached to Peralta’s Company and witnessed his act of extreme valor, recounted the series of events that unfolded that day. Kaemmerer points out that Sergeant Peralta’s status as a platoon scout meant he could have chosen to remain in a safer position while the squads of 1st Platoon entered the insurgent-filled streets of Fallujah. Yet having interviewed the Leathernecks who knew him best, Kaemmerer discovered that according to Peralta’s teammates, he would constantly ask whether he could help out by joining a “stack” (the term marines use for a six-man group).x
And that was the case on the morning of November 15, 2004, when Sergeant Peralta and his Marine brothers woke at day-break in the abandoned house they had made a home for the night. For seven days now, First Battalion, 3rd Marines had been embroiled in some of the most brutal fighting of the war. Eliminating the diehard insurgents who longed for martyrdom meant sweeping every house and building, room-by-room. After wolfing down a breakfast MRE and shaving, the marines of Alpha Company were locked, loaded, and ready to roll.xi
Lance Corporal Kaemmerer had decided to join Peralta’s 6-man stack. Marines use two stacks to clear a house. Kaemmerer remembered that he had been placed as the third man of his stack. After they had cleared three houses and were moving to their fourth, however, Kaemmerer said he and Sergeant Peralta switched positions, placing Peralta directly in front of him. Lance Corporal Kaemmerer’s stellar account explains, in his own words, the events as he witnessed them unfold:
When we reached the fourth house, we breached the gate and swiftly approached the building. The first Marine in the stack kicked in the front door, revealing a locked door to their front and another at the right.
Kicking in the doors simultaneously, one stack filed swiftly into the room to the front as the other group of Marines darted off to the right.
"Clear!" screamed the Marines in one of the rooms followed only seconds later by another shout of "clear!" from the second room. One word told us all we wanted to know about the rooms: there was no one in there to shoot at us.
We found that the two rooms were adjoined and we had another closed door in front of us. We spread ourselves throughout the rooms to avoid a cluster going through the next door.
Two Marines stacked to the left of the door as Peralta, rifle in hand, tested the handle. I watched from the middle, slightly off to the right of the room as the handle turned with ease.
Ready to rush into the rear part of the house, Peralta threw open the door.
‘POP! POP! POP!’ Multiple bursts of cap-gun-like sounding AK-47 fire rang throughout the house.
Three insurgents with AK-47s were waiting for us behind the door.
Peralta was hit several times in his upper torso and face at point-blank range by the fully-automatic 7.62mm weapons employed by three terrorists.
Mortally wounded, he jumped into the already cleared, adjoining room, giving the rest of us a clear line of fire through the doorway to the rear of the house.
We opened fire, adding the bangs of M-16A2 service rifles, and the deafening, rolling cracks of a Squad Automatic Weapon, or “SAW,” to the already nerve-racking sound of the AKs. One Marine was shot through the forearm and continued to fire at the enemy.
I fired until Marines closer to the door began to maneuver into better firing positions, blocking my line of fire. Not being an infantryman, I watched to see what those with more extensive training were doing.
I saw four Marines firing from the adjoining room when a yellow, foreign-made, oval-shaped grenade bounced into the room, rolling to a stop close to Peralta’s nearly lifeless body.
In an act living up to the heroes of the Marine Corps’ past, such as Medal of Honor recipients Private First Class James LaBelle and Lance Corporal Richard Anderson, Peralta—in his last fleeting moments of consciousness—reached out and pulled the grenade into his body. LaBelle fought on Iwo Jima and Anderson in Vietnam, both died saving their fellow Marines by smothering the blast of enemy grenades.
Peralta did the same for all of us in those rooms.
I watched in fear and horror as the other four Marines scrambled to the corners of the room and the majority of the blast was absorbed by Peralta’s now lifeless body. His selflessness left four other Marines with only minor injuries from smaller fragments of the grenade.
During the fight, a fire was sparked in the rear of the house. The flames were becoming visible through the door.
The decision was made by the Marine in charge of the squad to evacuate the injured Marines from the house, regroup and return to finish the fight and retrieve Peralta’s body.
We quickly ran for shelter, three or four houses up the street, in a house that had already been cleared and was occupied by the squad’s platoon.
As Staff Sergeant Jacob M. Murdock took a count of the Marines coming back, he found it to be one man short, and demanded to know the whereabouts of the missing Marine.
"Sergeant Peralta! He’s dead! He’s f------ dead," screamed Lance Corporal Adam Morrison, a machine gunner with the squad, as he came around a corner. "He’s still in there. We have to go back."
The ingrained code Marines have of never leaving a man behind drove the next few moments. Within seconds, we headed back to the house unknown what we may encounter yet ready for another round.
I don't remember walking back down the street or through the gate in front of the house, but walking through the door the second time, I prayed that we wouldn't lose another brother.
We entered the house and met no resistance. We couldn't clear the rest of the house because the fire had grown immensely and the danger of the enemy’s weapons cache exploding in the house was increasing by the second.
Most of us provided security while Peralta's body was removed from the house.
We carried him back to our rally point and upon returning were told that the other Marines who went to support us encountered and killed the three insurgents from inside the house.
Later that night, while I was thinking about the day’s somber events, Corporal Richard A. Mason, an infantryman with Headquarters Platoon, who, in the short time I was with the company became a good friend, told me, "You’re still here, don’t forget that. Tell your kids, your grandkids, what Sergeant Peralta did for you and the other Marines today."xii
Indeed, had he been able, Sergeant Rafael Peralta would have probably told us the same thing that so many of the men we were privileged to speak with said: “I wasn’t the only one out there; I was just doing my job; I was surrounded by heroes, my marine brothers, men whose hearts contain the same amount of love for their friends and freedom.”
But Sergeant Peralta’s actions had expressed more than his words ever could.
“Fallujah is going to be right up there among the most successful battles in Iraq, said Major Tom Davis, 45, of St. Cloud, Minnesota, “It’s where the rubber meets the road. That is where our heroes did their best.”xiii Winning had come at a gut-wrenching cost claiming the lives of 71 American soldiers and marines. However, a consensus among the men who fought in Fallujah, military analysts and experts has emerged: the victory in Fallujah proved pivotal in paving the way for the historic Iraqi elections two months later. American and Iraqi forces eliminated an estimated 1,600 insurgents and wounded and captured hundreds more. Today, with reconstruction still underway, military leaders have declared Fallujah one of the safest cities in Iraq.
General John Satler, commander of the Marine Expeditionary Force that waged the Battle of Fallujah, said that the city will become a model for how democracy can take hold in Iraq. While stressing that much hard work remains ahead, Satler said that the victory was not only an essential component to holding open and free democratic elections. Victory also provided a great psychological boost as well.xiv And while morale for the mission’s success was high, the task of burying the marines who had died would weigh heavy on each heart, especially for the families.
When Sergeant Peralta’s body was returned home to the States, he would receive a hero’s funeral. The event would be emotional. Indeed, the explosion from the blast had been so violent that his family members had to rely on the tattoo on his shoulder in order to properly identify him.xv On Nov. 23, 2004, Peralta, 25, was buried at the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, California, following a moving funeral Mass at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
For his marine brothers, it was a time for grateful reflection and remembrance. “He saved half my fire team,” said Corporal Brannon Dyer, 27, of Blairsville, Georgia. Platoon mate Corporal Rob Rogers, 22, of Tallahassee, Florida agreed: “He’d stand up for his Marines to an insane point.”xvi
But for Peralta’s mother, Rosa, and his siblings, Icela, Ricardo, and Karen, the death of their beloved Rafael had stirred up a range of emotions. They had experienced so much loss and tragedy in such a short span of time. It had only been three years since the death of Rafael’s father. And then, on the eve of Rafael and Maritca’s wedding, they had lost Maritca’s mother. So when Maritca herself was killed in a truck accident while traveling to bury her own mother, it had seemed as if life couldn’t deal the family another tragedy.
But it had.
In a Thanksgiving Day closing segment on ABC News, Icela expressed her internal struggle: “It’s just hard, because I know he saved a lot of people. And it’s something that I should be proud of. But I’m kind of hurt because I needed him. I needed him over here.”xvii
Sergeant Peralta’s younger sister, Karen, 13, was left to confront life without a father and now older brother. She worried that his life and legacy would soon be forgotten: “I know that right now, people are really nice and everything. When it’s going to be like, one year, or two years, they are going to forget about him….Right now they are giving medals to my mom for everything. But I know that when it comes to later on, they are going to forget him, they’re gonna forget about him.”xviii
Karen Peralta’s worries might soon subside, however. While Sergeant Rafael Peralta has already been awarded a Purple Heart, he is currently under consideration to join Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith as the only other individual in the War on Terror to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Indeed, Sergeant Peralta seems to be on the mind of President George W. Bush quiet often these days, as he has mentioned the heroic marine in a number of his public appearances and speeches.
During his 2005 Memorial Day radio address, for example, President Bush said, “Rafael Peralta also understood that America faces dangerous enemies, and he knew the sacrifices required to defeat them.”
Then, on June 16, 2005, at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., the president paid tribute to Sergeant Peralta again:
Finally, we see the love of neighbor in tens of thousands of Hispanics who serve America and the cause of freedom. One of these was an immigrant from Mexico named Rafael Peralta. The day after Rafael got his green card, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. Think about that. While serving in Iraq, this good sergeant wrote a letter to his younger brother. He said, "Be proud of being an American. Our father came to this country, became a citizen because it was the right place for our family to be." Shortly after writing that letter, Sergeant Peralta used his own body to cover a grenade an enemy soldier had rolled into a roomful of Marines.
This prayer breakfast, we remember the sacrifices of honorable and good folks like Sergeant Peralta, who have shown their love of neighbor by giving their life for freedom.
For the marines inside that room in Fallujah—the men for whom Sergeant Peralta gave the last full measure of devotion—they will unquestionably do as the president suggests, they will remember. For the Peralta family, it is unthinkable to imagine that a day will pass when thoughts of their hero will not fill their hearts and minds. And yet even when Sergeant Rafael Peralta, a man who signed up to serve his country the first chance he could, is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, his 13 year old sister’s question will linger: Will Americans forget?
Or will they celebrate the life of a young man who awoke each morning to the sight of his Boot Camp graduation picture, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence? A young man whose last words written to his little brother echo the sagacity of the generation of heroes that came before him: “Be proud of being an American.”