“Be proud of me, bro… and be proud of being an American.” Sergeant Rafael Peralta wrote those words to his little brother, Ricardo, the night before he was killed while clearing houses in Fallujah, Iraq, with his U.S. Marine squad. Those words reflected Sgt. Peralta’s character - a Marine’s Marine, with his boot camp graduation certificate hanging on his bedroom wall in his family’s home alongside copies of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He wanted to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps immediately upon graduating from San Diego’s Morse High School in 1997, but had to wait until he received his green card.
When he finally got that card in 2000, he enlisted the very same day. He would later become a U.S. citizen while serving in the Corps. His service in the Marine Corps progressed, and he was noted for showing great enthusiasm and patriotism as he completed his basic training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego later in 2000, and then further instruction at Infantry Training Battalion, School Infantry, Camp Pendleton, California, where he received the military occupational specialty of 0311 Rifleman.
In 2001, Sgt. Peralta was deployed overseas when he received the tragic news of his father’s death in a work-place accident. He returned home to be with his family, to help them through the difficult time and take on the “man of the house” role as he also trained at the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot and at Camp Pendleton. In 2003 he transferred to the Marine base in Kaneohe, Hawaii and re-enlisted for four more years. Sgt. Peralta was assigned to 1st Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, 3d Marine Division, III Marine Expeditionary Force and deployed to Iraq in 2004 as a scout team leader in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
He was heavily engaged in the city of Fallujah, Iraq, during Operation Al Fajr, known also as the Second Battle of Fallujah. After three long days clearing scores of houses in insurgent-heavy Fallujah, Sgt. Peralta asked to join an under-strength squad and volunteered to stand post that evening, allowing his fellow Marines more time to rest. That night, he wrote and sent the letter to his brother, Ricardo, who was then 14.
The next morning the squad Sgt. Peralta had joined successfully cleared six houses. At the seventh, the point man in the squad opened a door to a back room and immediately came under intense close-range automatic weapons fire form multiple insurgents. The Marines returned fire, wounding one insurgent. While attempting to get out of the line of fire, Sgt. Peralta was shot and fell mortally wounded.
The insurgents fled, throwing a grenade as they ran from the building. The grenade came to rest near Sgt. Peralta’s head. According to the official citation for the Navy Cross award:
“Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, Sgt. Peralta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast and shielding fellow Marines only feet away. Sgt. Peralta succumbed to his wounds. By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty, Sgt. Peralta reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”
Sgt. Peralta died that morning in Fallujah, on Nov. 15, 2004, at the age of 25.
In addition to the Navy Cross, Sgt. Peralta was awarded the Purple Heart and the Combat Action Ribbon. His other awards and decorations include a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal with one bronze campaign star, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon. He is buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.
The story of Sgt. Peralta’s service and heroism have become akin to legend in the U.S. Marine Corps. His story is told regularly at boot camp, and it has been cited by members of Congress and high-ranking generals. In 2007, the command post for the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit at Camp Hansen in Okinawa, Japan, was named “Peralta Hall” in honor of him.
In 2012, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that Sgt. Peralta would be forever memorialized by having a U.S. Navy destroyer named after him. Wherever USS Rafael Peralta sails, it will carry the message “Fortis ad Finem,” meaning “Courageous to the End.” This ship and these words will ensure the world will always remember and be inspired by the sacrifice of Sgt. Peralta, a young man who couldn’t wait to join the corps and serve his country, who loved his family deeply and put the welfare and lives of his fellow Marines above his own - a young man who was Courageous to the End.