Warship honoring Marine christened at Maine shipyard

Streamers fly during the christening the USS Raphael Peralta, the 35th Arleigh Burke Class Missile Destroyer to be built by Bath Iron Works, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, in Bath, Maine. The warship is named for Sgt. Raphael Peralta who was killed in action on Nov. 15, 2004 while clearing houses in the city of Fallujah, Iraq, during Operation Al Fajr.(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

BATH, Maine (AP) — First in English, then in Spanish, the mother of a fallen Mexican-born Marine who shielded his comrades from an insurgent’s grenade christened a new Navy destroyer in his honor.

The mother of Sgt. Rafael Peralta asked God to bless the ship named for her son and keep the crew safe before smashing a bottle of Champagne on the ship’s bow Saturday.

The ceremony to christen the future USS Rafael Peralta paid homage to the slain Marine, who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service of a country to which he emigrated as a boy.

Peralta, who pulled a grenade against his body to protect his fellow Marines during close combat with insurgents in Fallujah, Iraq, on Nov. 15, 2004, is believed to be the first serviceman born in Mexico to have a naval warship named in his honor.

“He believed more about the goodness of America than most Americans, to the point of fighting and sacrificing everything for what America stands for,” Gen. Robert Neller, the Marine Corps commandant, said as he quoted from Peralta’s former commanding officer from the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, the Hawaii-based “Lava Dogs.”

FILE - This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Navy shows Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta. On Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, the Navy will name a warship for Peralta, the first to be named after someone who was born in Mexico. Peralta was a Marine who was nominated for the Medal of Honor for falling on a grenade in Iraq. The ship's christening will take place at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. (U.S. Navy via AP, File)
FILE – This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Navy shows Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta. On Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, the Navy will name a warship for Peralta, the first to be named after someone who was born in Mexico. Peralta was a Marine who was nominated for the Medal of Honor for falling on a grenade in Iraq. The ship’s christening will take place at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. (U.S. Navy via AP, File)

Peralta was born in Mexico City and came to the U.S. with his family, attended high school in San Diego, then enlisted on the day he received his green card granting permanent residency status. He hung only three things on his wall: the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and his Marine boot camp graduation certificate.

Among Marines, Peralta is well known for his heroism.

The sergeant was nominated for the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military honor — after fellow Marines said he covered a grenade after being shot and wounded during close-quarters combat. The defense secretary at the time ultimately rejected that honor because of questions over whether the mortally wounded Marine was conscious at the time.

Peralta’s family, which has no doubt about his valor, said the naming of the 510-foot (155-meter) guided-missile destroyer in the fallen Marine’s honor has eased some of the bitterness.

The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer is one of a handful of Navy ships to be named for Mexican-Americans.

The USS Gonzalez bears the name of Master Sgt. Alfredo Cantu Gonzalez, a Marine who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in Vietnam. The cargo ship USNS Benavidez is named for another Medal of Honor recipient, Raul Perez Benavidez. There’s also a ship named for labor activist Cesar Chavez, a Navy veteran who died in 1993.

But historians at the U.S. Naval Institute believe the Peralta is the first warship named for someone who was actually born in Mexico, said Scot Christenson, spokesman in Annapolis, Maryland.

Rosa Peralta holds a champagne bottle case after christening the USS Raphael Peralta, the 35th Arleigh Burke Class Missile Destroyer to be built by Bath Iron Works, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, in Bath, Maine. The warship is named for Rosa Peralta's son, Sgt. Raphael Peralta, who was killed in action on Nov. 15, 2004, while clearing houses in the city of Fallujah, Iraq, during Operation Al Fajr. Rosa Peralta's daughter, Karen Sarahi Peralta, and son, Ricardo Peralta, join her on the platform.(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
Rosa Peralta holds a champagne bottle case after christening the USS Raphael Peralta, the 35th Arleigh Burke Class Missile Destroyer to be built by Bath Iron Works, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, in Bath, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Bath Iron Works celebrated Peralta’s heritage by printing Saturday’s program in English and Spanish, a first for such an event. And several speakers directed their remarks to the Peralta family in Spanish.

As the ship’s sponsor, Peralta’s mother had the honor of christening the ship. Her daughters served as the ship’s matron and maid of honor. Her other son, Ricardo Peralta, a former Marine, said his brother epitomized the Marine Corps motto: Semper Fidelis, or Always Faithful.

He described to the audience a letter he’d received from Peralta before his death, telling him not to worry and telling him to be proud of his country.

“He writes, ‘I’m proud to be a Marine, a U.S. Marine, and to protect and defend the Constitution of America.’ He said, ‘You should be proud of being an American citizen,'” he said.

Cmdr. Brian Ribota, commanding officer of the warship, said before the event that he relates to the ship’s namesake in a special way: His father was born in Mexico, as well, though Ribota was born in California.

“I can’t imagine growing up the way he did, coming across the border like he did, the sacrifices that he made,” Ribota said. “To everyone on our crew, he’s a hero. The bottom line is he’s an American hero.”

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