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

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 Saturday 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 hark 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, 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 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.

In his address, Peters (D-San Diego) 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,” he said.

carl.prine@sduniontribune.com

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