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Peralta brother carries on legacy as Marine

Aug. 17, 2010 - 06:31AM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 17, 2010 - 06:31AM  |  
Pfc. Ricardo Peralta enlisted to follow in the footstep of his brother, Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who earned the Navy Cross for his heroic actions in Iraq.
Pfc. Ricardo Peralta enlisted to follow in the footstep of his brother, Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who earned the Navy Cross for his heroic actions in Iraq. (SGT. CARRIE BOOZE / MARINE CORPS)
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Sgt. Rafael Peralta, 25, had been clearing houses for three days in Fallujah, Iraq, as part of Operation Phantom Fury when he sustained a mortal gunshot wound to the head Nov. 15, 2004. In his dying moments, the platoon guide and infantry rifleman smothered a grenade that insurgents had tossed at his buddies. He was killed, but he saved the lives of five other Marines with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii. (MARINE CORPS)

Ricardo Peralta burst into tears when he learned that his brother had died during one of the Iraq war's most violent battles.

Sgt. http://militarytimes.com/valor/marine-sgt-rafael-peralta/508957/">Rafael Peralta, 25, had been clearing houses for three days in Fallujah, Iraq, as part of Operation Phantom Fury when he sustained a mortal gunshot wound to the head Nov. 15, 2004. In his dying moments, the platoon guide and infantry rifleman smothered a grenade that insurgents had tossed at his buddies. He was killed, but he saved the lives of five other Marines with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii.

"I knew that they were there because of my brother's death," said Ricardo, then 14, of the Marines who arrived at his doorstep. "It was around that time I knew what I had to do, and that was to enlist in the Marine Corps."

Nearly six years later, the younger brother of one of the Corps' most famous Iraq war heroes has reached the fleet. A 19-year-old private first class, he graduated from School of Infantry-West in July and is now an infantry rifleman with 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, based at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif. He chose the "0311" military occupational specialty because his brother had it, and told recruiters he wouldn't settle for anything else, he said.

By becoming a Marine, the younger Peralta fulfilled a promise he made to his older brother at his funeral. It means answering questions about his brother regularly, and shouldering both the burden and pride that goes with carrying the Peralta name as a Marine.

The story of his brother's heroism is told regularly at boot camp, and has been cited by everyone from members of Congress to high-ranking generals. In Okinawa, Japan, the command post for the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit at Camp Hansen was named Peralta Hall in the late sergeant's honor in 2007.

Ricardo, whose family has experienced tragedy numerous times dating back to the September 2001 death of his father, acknowledges it hasn't always been easy, but he is pressing forward.

"It's been tough, sir," he said in an interview from Twentynine Palms. "It's mentally and physically tough. But what gets me through is picturing how my brother would get through. He's my motivation."

Growing up fast

The Peralta family immigrated to the San Diego area illegally from Tijuana, Mexico, in the 1990s, according to a 2004 report in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Rafael, the oldest sibling, wanted to enlist right out of high school in 1997, but he had to wait until he obtained his green card in 2000. He joined the Corps the same day.

Within the next three years, the family lost numerous family members. In September 2001, the Peraltas' father, Rafael Peralta Rios, was killed while working on a truck at a waste-management company in nearby El Cajon, according to media reports. The truck rolled over, pinning him beneath. Ricardo was 11 at the time and living at home with his mother, Rosa, and sister, Karen, 13. Another sister, Icela, was a year younger than Rafael.

Over the next few years, Rafael became a father figure to Ricardo, the younger Peralta said.

"After my father's death, that's when we started talking more," he said. He recalled a time when he got in trouble in elementary school and Rafael found out.

"My brother made me clean the whole backyard after he found out," Ricardo said. "He always kept me straight and made sure I'd stay out of trouble."

In December 2003, the family experienced more tragedy while Rafael was based in Hawaii. His fianceé, Maritca Alvarez, was killed in an automobile accident in Mexico while traveling to bury her own mother. Alvarez had planned to fly to Hawaii to be with Rafael the same day her mother died, according to several published reports. The Alvarez family tried to reach Rafael for four days while his wife-to-be was on life support. They eventually buried her before he could return, and he later visited her grave with his mother.

Less than a year later, Rafael died in combat. The family dealt with the pain, but took heart that his sacrifice would be remembered — perhaps even with the Medal of Honor. President Bush recognized his sacrifice in several 2005 speeches, feeding the belief that Rafael might receive the prestigious medal posthumously.

Ricardo continued to profess his desire to follow in his brother's footsteps, even though his mother objected, he said.

‘Justice will be made'

At the same time Ricardo was approaching adulthood, a controversy began to bubble to the surface.

Behind the scenes at the Pentagon, the Marine Corps had nominated Rafael for the Medal of Honor, and the Navy Department approved it in November 2006.

That left only Defense Department approval. Instead of agreeing with the recommendation, the Defense Department asked the Navy for more information, Pentagon officials said. After an additional review, Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided that Peralta should not receive the Medal of Honor because there were doubts over whether the Marine made a conscious decision to cover the grenade after being shot in the head or simply fell on top of it.

On Sept. 17, 2008, officials announced Peralta would http://militarytimes.com/citations-medals-awards/recipient.php?recipientid=3655">receive the Navy Cross, the nation's second-highest award for valor. The decision infuriated many Marines and the Peraltas, who were dumbfounded that his actions didn't rate the nation's highest honor. Rosa Peralta told reporters she would not accept the Navy Cross on her son's behalf — and she still hasn't.

Through it all, Ricardo never wavered in his promise. After graduating from high school last year, he approached recruiters in National City, Calif., a suburb of San Diego. With dyed blue and black hair and a 5-foot-5, 128-pound frame, he didn't look like a prospective Marine, but he impressed recruiters with his desire, said Sgt. Ryan Hunt, his recruiter.

Ricardo's mother disapproved of his decision to enlist, but she supported her son, driving him to poolee functions. He improved as a potential recruit, before going to boot camp in January.

"Eventually, the stuff about his brother, it all came out," Hunt said. "I was kind of overwhelmed at first. We did a lot of research about his brother and what he went through, but Ricardo wanted to make sure he didn't get treated any differently or any more special because of his brother. He was extremely dedicated. I told him, ‘Peralta, believe me, no one is going to go easy on you. If anything, they're going to go harder on you.' "

Ricardo measures his words carefully when discussing Gates' decision. Although his family hasn't accepted the Navy Cross, Ricardo said he separates politics from the military, and wants to be a Marine anyway. He holds out hope that his brother will receive the nation's highest honor, though.

"Justice will be made," he said. "My brother will get that Medal of Honor. He deserves it."

Navy Hospitalman Chief Ivory Barksdale III, a corpsman with 1/3 during the 2004 Fallujah deployment, said he hasn't seen Ricardo since a 2005 memorial service in Hawaii, but hopes to meet him again. Rafael spoke fondly of his family while in Fallujah, and inspired those around him, Barksdale said.

"I remember that he pulled me aside one day and said, ‘Doc, are you willing to die for your country?' And he meant it," said Barksdale, who was about two blocks from the house where Peralta died when the grenade exploded.

"I said, ‘Where is this coming from?' " he said. "After everything that happened, it really sticks with me."

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