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'It sort of haunts you:' The moving story behind the preservation of Sgt. Rafael Peralta's rifle

Jan. 12, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Sgt. Rafael Peralta's banged-up M16 service rifle sits in storage at the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, Va.
Sgt. Rafael Peralta's banged-up M16 service rifle sits in storage at the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico, Va. (Courtesy National Museum of the Marine Corps)
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A scan of the original poem William Berry, a former Marine Corps armorer, wrote in honor of Sgt. Rafael Peralta's battle-scarred rifle. (Poem is courtesy William Berry)

When William Berry wrote to the National Museum of the Marine Corps asking its curators to find Sgt. Rafael Peralta’s M16 service rifle, he wasn’t terribly confident they would read it or respond.

After all, his letter was postmarked from the Virginia Beach County Jail, where he was serving a year sentence after a drunken driving bust.

But Berry wasn’t just a casual observer; he was intimately familiar with that rifle, down to its shrapnel scars and battle dust, and his instructions helped museum staff to locate the weapon at the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit armory in Okinawa, Japan, where it had been in storage for years. Where, in fact, Berry had left it in 2005 when he gave it a final cleaning after its return from Iraq.

An armorer with Battalion Landing Team 1/3, Berry’s job in Iraq in 2004 was in part to collect the remnants of rifles after their owners became war casualties. Frequently, the weapons were mangled and twisted; sometimes they were covered in blood.

Berry recalled several instances when casualties came pouring in all at once and his grim job became a blur.

“Right before we went into Fallujah, it was late October, we had an [improvised explosive device] go off on a seven-ton [truck], and it killed eight Marines,” said Berry, who was a 22-year-old lance corporal at the time. “Once we recovered all the weapons, which were blown up to bits, we would put them in a body bag. ”

Berry knew Peralta, who was in Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, but the two were not especially close. On Nov. 15, 2004, Berry learned that Peralta had been killed in a house-clearing mission, and reports of his heroism — that he had grabbed a live grenade and covered it with his body to save the Marines who were with him — quickly circulated through the ranks.

But he didn’t handle his weapon until, in 2005, it was placed in his care at the 31st MEU armory.

He was told to clean it, that it was going to the Marine Corps museum.

“There was definitely shrapnel all through the hand guards, still blood on it,” he said. “I spent a few hours cleaning that thing ... I took a lot of care with it.”

As years passed, Berry said he visited the museum and was saddened that he never found the rifle on display. He began to suspect the weapon had never completed its journey.

So in his jail cell in 2010, he mailed the letter to the museum, including a poem he’d written about cleaning the weapon, and the emotion he felt, knowing its owner had died with it by his side.

Though Berry said he understands the complexity of the Medal of Honor process, he said he still believes Peralta deserves the nation’s highest combat valor award. It’s bigger than just one Marine and his family, he said.

“It would definitely represent Fallujah and all the Marines who served there,” Berry said. “Us Fallujah vets, man, it’s one thing we’ll never forget. It sort of haunts you, it really does.”

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