BATH — Rafael Peralta was so eager to serve his adopted country that the Mexican native enlisted in the Marine Corps the same day that he received his immigration green card.

By the time Peralta was killed in action “clearing houses” during the Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq four years later, he was a rising 25-year-old Marine Corps sergeant – and a naturalized U.S. citizen who kept a copy of the U.S. Constitution on his bedroom wall at home.

On Saturday, members of Peralta’s family gathered with more than 1,000 other people at Bath Iron Works to help christen a Navy destroyer that will bear his name. The USS Rafael Peralta is the 35th Arleigh Burke-class destroyer built by BIW since 1989 and one of five destroyers now at various stages of construction at BIW.

“We are here today to celebrate the life and spirit of a great Marine and an American hero,” said the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller. “And we are also here today to christen a powerful Navy warship in Sgt. Peralta’s honor, and we are also here to express our appreciation to the Peralta family for raising a man of honor, courage and commitment.”

It was Peralta’s mother and the sponsor of the ship, Rosa Maria Peralta, who did the honor of smashing a bottle of champagne near the bow of the 510-foot-long destroyer after a ceremony that featured speeches from top Navy officials, BIW representatives and members of Maine’s congressional delegation.

“God has rested Rafael’s soul, but this amazing battleship will carry his spirit forever,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin of the 2nd District.

Peralta was just a boy when his family immigrated to the United States from Mexico. According to the family, he wanted to join the Marine Corps as soon as he graduated from high school but had to wait for his green card first. He enlisted the day that card arrived in 2000 and would later re-enlist for four more years in 2003.

A year later, Peralta was serving with his unit in the area around Fallujah – a hotbed of insurgent activity – when he wrote a letter to his brother, Ricardo, who was then only 14. As recounted Saturday by Ricardo – himself a veteran today – Rafael Peralta told his brother “to be proud of me” and that he was about to make history.

Days later, Peralta was killed when his unit came under attack while clearing houses in Fallujah. He was awarded the Navy Cross – the nation’s second-highest military honor – for reportedly pulling a grenade toward his body to shield his fellow Marines from the blast when he was already lying on the ground with mortal gunshot wounds.

“With that statement, I know he was referring to his final acts by saving the lives of his fellow men,” Ricardo Peralta told the crowd gathered just beneath the massive ship. “And now I feel that he is also referring to today and the christening of the USS Rafael Peralta.”

Peralta became one of the most celebrated Marine heroes from the Iraq war, but his story has not been without controversy.

Both the Navy and the Marine Corps supported bestowing the Medal of Honor on Peralta. However, the Pentagon turned down the requests after some members of Peralta’s unit raised questions about whether he purposely shielded others from the grenade. While other members of the unit have sworn to its truth, the Pentagon also received conflicting opinions from medical professionals who reviewed the case.

But Saturday’s events in Bath were an opportunity to honor the sacrifice of a Mexican native who decorated the walls of his room with copies of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and his Marine boot camp graduation certificate. While peace activists gathered outside of BIW’s gates to protest defense spending, speakers at the official ceremony used the occasion to commend the workforce at BIW, which for decades has served as one of the Navy’s primary shipyards for warships.

“To the men and women of Bath Iron Works, you make ‘Bath built is best built’ not just a slogan, but a way of life,” said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. “Your skill, commitment to excellence, and perhaps most important, your hearts, go into every ship built here.

A subsidiary of General Dynamics, BIW is one of Maine’s largest private employers with nearly 6,000 workers.

 


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