Named for a San Diego hero, Navy’s newest destroyer reports for duty

on Jul31

Dubbed the “9,250-ton greyhound” of American military power and high-tech wizardry, the $1.5 billion guided-missile destroyer Rafael Peralta was commissioned on Saturday morning at Naval Air Station North Island, within gunshot of the carriers it will protect for the next four decades.

The warship bears the name of Sgt. Rafael Peralta, a Marine who posthumously received the Navy Cross — the nation’s second-highest award for battlefield bravery.

“Our allies will see the name of this ship in ports around the world,” said Gen. Robert Neller, the 37th Commandant of the Marine Corps. “And our adversaries, if they so wish to test it, may learn the power of this ship and the spirit and confidence of its crew.”

Saturday’s formal commissioning ceremony officially placed the warship into active service. It was the culminating event in a string of maritime rituals — ship naming, keel laying, christening and launching — that hearken back to 1775, when the Continental Navy commissioned the Alfred for combat duty against the British.

The event drew not only Neller but three members of San Diego County’s congressional delegation — Reps. Scott Peters, Darrell Issa and Susan Davis — plus San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Navy Vice Adms. Nora Tyson, commander of the Third Fleet, and Tom Rowden, commander of Naval Surface Forces.

Each of the 2,400 white seats set out for the commissioning was filled, and hundreds more stood behind the rows, including the ranks of the Peralta’s crew.

In halting English, Rosa Maria Peralta, the San Diego mother of the destroyer’s namesake, ordered the crew to “Man our ship and bring her to life!” — a command that sent the crew of 290 sailors dashing aboard the vessel. Above them, radar dishes spun, horns blared and the gun at the bow turned, signaling that it was ready for duty in the spirit of Rafael Peralta.

Born in Mexico City in 1979, Sgt. Peralta was brought to the United States as a child by his parents. A graduate of Samuel F. B. Morse High School, he enlisted in the Marines the day he received his green card in the mail.

Assigned to the “Lava Dogs” of A Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, Peralta volunteered on Nov. 15, 2004, to lead a scout team as it cleared buildings of insurgents during the brutal Second Battle of Fallujah in Iraq.

In the seventh house his team stormed, a barrage of enemy bullets hit him. Wounded, he fell to the floor.

A fleeing militant tossed a grenade. It skittered to a rest near Peralta’s head.

The Marine snatched the grenade to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast to spare the lives of his fellow Marines, according to his Navy Cross citation.

He is buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in Point Loma.

Echoes of both his combat valor and story from immigrant to American hero rang throughout the commissioning ceremony.

Cannons fired a thunderous salute to the warship and the dignitaries who boarded it, the smoke curling silver and black through the packed crowd, a reminder of the din of battle Peralta faced in Iraq — and what the warship might sail toward in the future.

The color guard toting the flags of the United States, Navy and Marine Corps for the national anthem came from Camp Pendleton’s Wounded Warrior Battalion. The headquarters building there is named after Peralta and his portrait hangs on its wall. Every year at the unit’s ball, the guest of honor is Rosa Peralta.

During the commissioning, she sat near her daughters Icela and Karen and son Ricardo, who also served as a Marine.

In his speech, Faulconer remembered Sgt. Peralta as a “hometown hero” whose message — courage to the end — will be carried across the globe by the warship that bears his name. Where it sails, so sails his story.

Peters’ address focused on the new warship’s vital role in the American military’s “pivot” to the Pacific Rim, while noting that San Diego boasts the nation’s largest concentration of veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

“The Peralta is ready for combat, just as her namesake was when he stepped into battle in Fallujah 13 years ago,” Peters, D-San Diego, said.

Issa, R-Vista, turned to the Peralta’s crew and said that they and their warship were “part of an idea that he died for, that he lived by, that he wasn’t an American by birth but an American by choice.”

Davis addressed Peralta’s loved ones in her speech. A fierce advocate in Congress for military families, the San Diego Democrat said that while the sergeant “made a split-second decision, you live with that sacrifice today.”

“We know that you served,” Davis continued. “I believe that all of our families also serve.”

Davis’ fellow member on the powerful House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Alpine, did not attend the commissioning.

His father, Duncan L. Hunter, took his place. A former U.S. Army Ranger who served in Vietnam, the senior Hunter chaired the powerful House Armed Services Committee during the Second Battle of Fallujah.

The elder Hunter castigated former President Barack Obama’s administration, Pentagon “bureaucrats” and Navy leaders who cast doubt on the gravely wounded Peralta’s ability to clutch the grenade to his chest. That triggered former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to downgrade Peralta’s proposed Medal of Honor to the Navy Cross.

Reading often from a note sent to him by his son shortly before the commissioning, the elder Hunter said his son would keep fighting to upgrade the commendation: “Duncan closed his message to me with these words: ‘When America has no more Rafael Peraltas, we will have no more freedom,’” he said.

Gen. Neller’s keynote address reminded the audience that every Navy warship is sovereign American territory. Like any destroyer, however, it needed three things: A hull bearing its weapons, a name “to give it the spirit of its legacy,” and a crew to man it.

“And when you put those three things together, you create more than just a ship,” he said. “It’s, well, it’s a life form.”

In the closing remarks, Navy Cmdr. Brian Ribota, the destroyer’s skipper, vowed to make his crew “ready for any tasking we receive in the future” — including swatting any missiles fired on behalf of a “rotund child with anger management issues,” a veiled reference to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

Ribota’s warship is the 65th guided-missile destroyer in the Arleigh Burke class and the 35th built by the Maine-based Bath Iron Works division of General Dynamics.

The composition of the Peralta’s crew mirrors the nation, the larger Navy surface warfare community and Sgt. Peralta’s family. Sailors aboard the warship hail from 43 states, the District of Columbia and the American territory of Guam, plus six foreign nations.

Like Sgt. Peralta, the warship’s senior enlisted leader — Command Master Chief German Lira — was born in Mexico and raised in California.

Ribota told the audience that his warship would always solemnly and silently man the rails when passing near Sgt. Peralta’s grave at Fort Rosencrans, an honor to the Marine hero.

But Ribota’s crew told The San Diego Union-Tribune that they also bestow a similar nautical tradition of honors for Rosa Peralta whenever she departs the warship, much as they would for an admiral.

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