At his brother’s funeral nearly six years ago, Ricardo Peralta made him a promise: He would join the Marine Corps and carry on in his example.
On Friday, Peralta, now 19, fulfilled that promise as he graduated from the school of infantry.
He will now report to a battalion in Twentynine Palms, Calif., and, like his brother, probably deploy to a war zone as an infantry “grunt.”
“I have big shoes to fill,” Peralta, a Marine private first class, said quietly.
His brother, Sgt. Rafael Peralta, was killed at age 25 during the battle for Fallouja, Iraq, in November 2004. He is revered by the Marine Corps as one of the true heroes of the long battle in Iraq.
His story is told to every recruit at boot camp in San Diego — how he saved the lives of fellow Marines by smothering an enemy grenade with his body. Marine brass, famously stingy in recommending battle citations, nominated him for the Medal of Honor.
At Friday’s ceremony, Capt. Robert Gill told the 226 graduates and dozens of family members that Rafael Peralta’s bravery and sacrifice were the essence of the Marine Corps’ motto: Semper fidelis, Latin for “always faithful.”
Rosa Peralta nodded and her eyes filled with tears as Gill told how her son had taken the lead as his squad sought to clear heavily armed insurgents from a barricaded house. Struck immediately by gunfire, Peralta fell to the floor, Gill said.
Five Marines who were there would later testify that when insurgents rolled a grenade into the room, Peralta found the strength to pull the grenade toward his body, absorbing the blast, saving lives.
After the graduation ceremony, as Ricardo Peralta received hugs from his mother and teenage sister, he reflected on his promise. His brother had always urged him to enlist in the Marine Corps, but he had rejected the idea.
But at Rafael’s funeral in San Diego, as Ricardo looked into his brother’s casket and touched his hand, he made the promise to become a Marine.
“I would never have disrespected him and not enlisted as he wanted me to,” Ricardo said. “I just hope that wherever he is now, he is proud of me, like I’m proud of him.”
The day after the Peralta family was notified of Rafael’s death, a letter arrived that the Marine had written to his brother.
Rafael, who was born in Mexico City and joined the Marine Corps the day he received his green card, told his brother to appreciate their adopted country.
“You should be proud of being an American,” he wrote. “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.”
Rafael Peralta posthumously received the Navy Cross, rather than the Medal of Honor, because of conflicting medical analysis about whether he consciously pulled the grenade toward him or whether it was an automatic reflex of somebody already dead.
The decision, made by the secretary of Defense, has angered Marines. In her grief, Rosa Peralta has refused to accept the lesser award.
After his brother’s death, Ricardo Peralta attended the 10-day Devil Pups program at Camp Pendleton. He enlisted just days after graduating from high school -- over his mother’s objections.
“I’m very proud of being a Marine, but sometimes I don’t think I deserve this,” he said, pointing to his name tag. “My brother is such a part of Marine history. I’m just hoping that I can live up to him.”
A Marine sought out Ricardo Peralta to shake his hand.
“I knew your brother, you hear what I’m saying,” said 1st Sgt. Daniel Santiago, locking a firm gaze at his eyes. “Make things happen.”
Rafael was a weightlifter and athlete, an extrovert by personality. He had become the head of the family when his father died in a workplace accident.
Ricardo is more introverted, smaller and less athletic. When he gets into a difficult situation — like boot camp — he tries to decide what his brother would have done. Since his brother’s death, he has become more attached to his Catholic faith and the belief in an afterlife.
“I know that someday my brother and I will meet again; our whole family will meet,” he said.