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Marine, hero, immigrant: Remembering Sgt. Rafael Peralta

Photo by TK/Flickr (Creative Commons)

During a recent controversy over the naming of a U.S. Navy ship for labor leader and civil rights hero Cesar Chavez, the name of a lesser-known hero was brought up, that of Marine Corps Sgt. Rafael Peralta.

Peralta's story, better known in military circles, came up earlier this month when Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, a Republican from East San Diego County and a former Marine, objected to the Navy's decision to name a new cargo ship for Chavez, who served in the Navy between 1944 and 1946. Hunter suggested naming the ship after Peralta instead; after the Navy moved forward with its original decision, Hunter responded by introducing legislation last week seeking to name the next Navy vessel after the late Marine.

Who was Rafael Peralta? His story is as inspiring as it is tragic. Peralta was a Mexican-born Marine whose family moved from Mexico City to Tijuana. Like many kids growing up on the border, he attended school in San Diego. He eventually received permanent legal resident status in the United States and, upon receiving his green card, according to news reports, he joined the Marines. A piece on the site described his early ambitions:

Young Rafael Peralta, or “Rafa,” thought carefully about his future as he grew up in Tijuana and San Diego in the 1980s and ’90s. He earned excellent grades and thought he might become a lawyer. While in high school, he decided to join the Marine Corps and postpone college until after his service. He was ecstatic on the day in the late ’90s when he got a green card, not only because it granted him legal U.S. residency, but because he could now sign up with the Marines.

In November 2004, while his battalion was engaged in Fallujah, Iraq, Peralta was involved in a house-to-house sweep when he was hit by bullets. Witness accounts from fellow Marines described a grenade landing near him, and the mortally wounded Peralta reaching out to pull it under his body, smothering it and with that saving the lives of others nearby. He was 25.

Peralta was nominated for a Medal of Honor, the nation's highest distinction for military service. However, after an investigation, Department of Defense officials questioned whether a severe gunshot wound to the back of his head would have left him able to pick up the grenade. In the end he was awarded a posthumous Navy Cross, still a high honor, but a lesser one.

The decision outraged fellow Marines, particularly those who were with Peralta the day he died. One of them told USA Today in 2008:

"I know for a fact that I would have been killed … and that my daughter, Sophia, our new baby, Sienna, would not be here or coming into the world. And that my son, Noah, would have grown up without knowing his dad," said Robert Reynolds, 31, a corrections officer and former Marine who was with Peralta that day.

A 2007 documentary titled "Act of Honor" chronicled Peralta's story, before the Department of Defense made its decision.

San Diego's East County Magazine reported Saturday that Hunter's amendment, which would direct the Secretary of the Navy to name the next available ship after Peralta, has won House approval.