A Hero’s Courageous Sacrifice

Times Staff Writer

Sgt. Rafael Peralta is dead, but the story of his sacrifice to save fellow Marines will live long in Marine Corps lore.

In the fierce battle for the Iraqi town of Fallouja, Peralta, with gunshot wounds to his head and body, reached out and grabbed a grenade hurled by an insurgent, cradling it to his body to save others from the blast.

The explosion in the back room of a house injured one Marine, but four others managed to scramble to safety.


Peralta, 25, an immigrant from Mexico who enlisted the day he got his green card work permit, was declared dead en route to a field hospital.

“If he hadn’t done what he did, a lot of us wouldn’t be seeing our families again,” said Lance Cpl. Travis J. Kaemmerer, who witnessed the blast.

Garry Morrison, the father of Lance Cpl. Adam Morrison, had trouble keeping his voice from breaking when he spoke of Peralta.

“He saved the life of my son and every Marine in that room,” Morrison said in a phone call from Seattle. “I just know one thing: God has a special place in heaven for Sgt. Peralta.”

Similar gratitude was expressed by family members of other Marines in Peralta’s unit who were close to the blast. The unit was Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division.

“The Bible says it all: ‘No greater love hath no man than to give his life for another,’ ” Becky Dyer, the wife of Cpl. Brannon Dyer, said in a phone call from Honolulu.


“My husband and I both feel that way,” she said. “That’s how the whole company feels about Sgt. Peralta.”

In a modest home in a blue-collar neighborhood, the Peralta family feels pride but also grief, anger and confusion.

Rafael Peralta was the oldest son: strong, a weightlifter and athlete, head of the family since his father died in a workplace accident three years ago. He loved the Marine Corps.

He joined in 2000 and recently had reenlisted. While in the Marines, he became a U.S. citizen. The only decorations on his bedroom walls are a copy of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and a picture of his boot camp graduation.

As Peralta waited last month to begin the assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallouja, he wrote a letter to his 14-year-old brother, Ricardo.

The letter arrived the day after several Marines and a Navy chaplain came to the Peralta home to notify the family of his death.


“We are going to destroy insurgents,” Peralta wrote. “Watch the news.... Be proud of me, bro. I’m going to do something I always wanted to do.

“You should be proud of being an American. Our father came to this country and became a citizen because it was the right place for our family to be. If anything happens to me, just remember I’ve already lived my life to the fullest.”

Peralta had left his mother, Rosa, with similar words. She said he told her, “I want you to be strong and take care of my brother and sisters because I don’t know if I’ll return.”

His mother added, “I’m proud of him, but my heart is sad.”

Rafael Peralta had not been assigned to the Nov. 15 attack on Fallouja. Still, he volunteered.

As a scout, assigned to perimeter security, he could have stayed on the periphery. Instead, he took the lead as his platoon stormed a house in search of heavily armed insurgents known to be hiding in the neighborhood.

The house appeared empty. Then Peralta opened a door to a back room, and three insurgents fired their AK-47s. Marines fired back at near point-blank range with M-16 rifles and automatic weapons.


Hit several times in the chest and once in the head, Peralta went down and appeared dead. Insurgents tossed a “yellow, foreign-made, oval-shaped” grenade toward the Marines.

To the amazement of the other Marines, Peralta, apparently with his last bit of strength, “reached out and pulled the grenade into his body,” said Kaemmerer, a combat correspondent from the 1st Force Service Support Group assigned to the battalion.

Peralta’s body absorbed most of the deadly fragments from the blast.

“Most of the Marines in the house were in the immediate area of the grenade,” Kaemmerer said. “Every one of us is grateful and will never forget the second chance at life Sgt. Peralta gave us.”

After the grenade blast, the house caught fire, and Marines repositioned in the street for a second assault.

Within minutes, the three insurgents had been killed by Marines and Peralta’s body recovered.

In the hours after the battle, Marines spoke quietly of Peralta’s heroism.

“You’re still here, don’t forget that,” Lance Cpl. Richard A. Mason told Kaemmerer. “Tell your kids, your grandkids, what Sgt. Peralta did for you and other Marines today.”


Even in their pain, Peralta’s family members are not surprised that he decided to lead from the front.

“My brother was very courageous,” Ricardo Peralta said. “He wasn’t scared of anyone or anything.”

Still, his older sister, Icela Donald, 24, wished that her brother had not been so brave.

“It doesn’t surprise me that he did something like that,” she said. “But it kind of makes me mad. He had a family, and we need him.”

Donald, who lives in Florida, came to San Diego to be with Ricardo, their sister Karen and their mother.

The family has been accommodating to the media, but know that soon attention will shift. “People will forget about him,” Donald said. “That’s when it will hurt the most.”

When Peralta’s body returned to San Diego for burial, his family members were unable to recognize him. They identified him only by the Marine tattoo on his left shoulder.


Family members kept a two-day vigil next to the casket before burial Nov. 23 at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery at Point Loma, Calif.

Ricardo Peralta was the first family member to talk to members of the “casualty notification” team. Despite his youth, he knew instinctively why they had come to his house.

Among family members of Marines, there is no greater fear than seeing an official car pull up at their house, with Marines in dress uniforms.

Ricardo Peralta called his mother to hurry home from her job as a housekeeper at a hospital. Once home, she quickly became distraught and ordered the Marines to leave.

Donald said her mother had only recently begun to recover from the death of her husband and her son’s fiancee.

Rosa Peralta’s husband, a diesel mechanic, was killed in September 2001 when a truck he was working on rolled and pinned him.


In December 2003, Rafael Peralta’s fiancee was killed in a traffic accident in Michoacan, Mexico, where she had gone to attend her mother’s funeral.

“God is punishing me, but I don’t know why,” Rosa Peralta said.

Karen Peralta, 13, knows how she will remember her older brother. “As a hero,” she said.

Does his heroism make it easier to accept that he is gone?

“No,” she said quietly, her eyes downcast and filling with tears.