BIW christens USS Raphael Peralta

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

Hundreds gathered to watch the christening Saturday of the U.S.S. Rafael Peralta DDG 115, constructed at Bath Iron Works.

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

Peralta, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico City as a child, enlisted in the Marines on the same day he earned his green card, according to U.S. Navy officials. He 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.”

Peralta was denied the Medal of Honor but awarded the Navy Cross, the nation’s second highest award for valor, after former Defense Secretary Robert Gates ruled the Marine lost consciousness after he was mortally wounded and his body smothered a grenade in Iraq in 2004, saving other lives. The prevailing belief among the military is that Peralta pulled the grenade against his body to protect his fellow Marines during close combat with insurgents Nov. 15, 2004, in Fallujah.

Supporters in Peralta’s hometown of San Diego, on Capitol Hill and in the Navy persistently campaigned for Peralta to receive the Medal of Honor. Peralta’s mother wouldn’t accept the Navy Cross until this summer as plans progressed to name the ship after her son. Peralta also was awarded a Purple Heart and other honors posthumously.

Naming the 510-foot guided-missile destroyer in the fallen Marine’s honor has eased some of the bitterness, Peralta’s family said.

“It’s easy to see that she is like the Marine for which she is named: proud, fearless, and strong,” said Vice Adm. Robin Braun, the chief of Navy research.

The DDG 115 is the 35th Arleigh Burke class missile destroyer that Bath Iron Works employees have built. It is the 65th ship of its class.

Peralta’s Marine comrades said the sergeant hung the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights on his wall along with his Marine boot camp graduation certificate.

He sent his brother Ricardo Peralta, now a former Marine, a letter during his time overseas.

” ‘Be proud of me,’ Ricardo Peralta read from his brother’s correspondence. “The letter goes on to say he was going to make history.”

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 Sgt. Alfredo Cantu Gonzalez, a Marine 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. A ship also is 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 born in Mexico, said Scot Christenson, spokesman in Annapolis, Md.

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.

“Today we are naming one of the world’s most powerful fighting ships after this fighting man,” Neller said. “May she sail fast. May she be ready at all times to go into harm’s way. May she be successful in all missions and do so with the pride and courage with which he served.”

Peralta’s mother had the honor of christening the ship. Her daughters served as the ship’s matron and maid of honor.

The ship weighs more than 9,200 tons and is more than 500 feet long. The Latin motto fortis ad finem, which translates as courageous to the end and commemorates Rafael Peralta’s character, is on its crest.

“His legacy will carry on as long as the Marine Corps and the U.S.S. Rafael Peralta stays alive because he has become a part of American history,” his brother 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.”

Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow Chris Costa on Twitter: @ChrisCostaTV

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