By Raymond R. Beltran
Rosa Peralta is declining phone calls from reporters from now on. It’s too hard on her, emotionally. Reliving the death of her son, periodically, throughout the past two and a half years.
Rafael, her eldest of four, died embracing a live grenade in Iraq to save the lives of fellow Marines, the focal point of a new documentary Act of Honor to air on the History Channel this weekend.
The film exhibits Rosa at her most vulnerable, crying on her eldest daughter’s, Isela’s, shoulders. Her now-only son Ricardo, sixteen, is twirling his thumbs to avenge his brother somehow. Karen, his sibling peer, joined him at a Devil Pups camp, a ten-day junior military training program.
“He did good, but his loss is felt,” says Rosa, who’s had to keep her family at bay from an onslaught of press during the release of Act. “Imagine us now … we’re not good.”
One morning on November 24, 2004, Marine Sgt. Rafael voluntarily joins a combat unit sweeping homes in residential Fallujah for Iraqi insurgents and is met with a barrage of gunfire after kicking in a door. Shot in the face and in the chest, Rafael fell to the floor. During what may have been only seconds of gunfire, a single grenade is rolled out beneath the chaos, which he grips and hugs as it detonates, saving the lives of at least three soldiers close by who suffer minor shrapnel injury but live to tell the story.
The story they tell throughout the film: Rafael, a native of Mexico City and resident of San Diego, was an honorable man, a dedicated combatant, a motivator and a great salsa dancer, amidst some of the most horrific conditions anyone could experience.
His actions now have become golden among new recruits and veteran soldiers, and could more than likely, earn him a posthumous medal of honor, the highest military award possible.
And his family … a last name that will go down on record as having paid the ultimate price of the war in Iraq.
The new documentary teeters between the civilian and military life of Rafael, the loyalty to his biological as well as “chosen” family, says History Channel executive producer Marlene Braga.
From a big brother at summer barbeques, a lady’s man at night clubs and an over-achieving Morse High School student dreaming of law school someday to a soldier who predicted his death, being re-baptized in Iraq and inquiring about life insurance to senior officers, Rafael Peralta’s journey has been pieced together, seemingly, politics aside.
“It illustrates that in all parts of the world, people come to this country for exactly the same things people born in this country are seeking,” says Braga. “They want to engage in meaningful work and to be able to pursue happiness … There are far more commonalities than there are differences.”
Though, he was dedicated to his position and held high the regard for a country he only became a citizen of the day he died, Act depicts Rafael as a man that would have gladly taken a bullet for a neighbor down the street if under different circumstances.
Young Rafael was sixteen when he arrived in the States and acquired a patriotic obsession to join the military ranks. The only thing that held him back from his future goals when recruiters visited Morse High School was a green card, but as Gunnery Sgt. F.T. Orcaz reminisces in the film, soon as he obtained that card, he slapped it down on the recruiter’s desk and was on his way.
Described as a young man who posted the Constitution and Bill of Rights to the wall of his bedroom, he was said to have a deep loyalty to the country where his father brought them for a better life.
The film follows the family through two years, though it runs sixty minutes, during visits at Rafael’s grave site, at family parties in Tijuana, the younger siblings’ training with Devil Pups and ultimately meeting with the surviving Marines. It teeters between footage from home-videos, picture albums, family friends’ testimonies about the late Peralta, a big brother, and more vividly, a closing letter that arrived to his younger brother, Ricardo, who ultimately made a posthumous promise to his role model to fill his combat boots.
“I have to do something,” says young Ricardo, who plans to enlist in the Marine Corps. “I have to avenge him, somehow.”
Today, Ricardo doesn’t have the speed bumps his brother did. He’s a citizen and the way he lost Rafael only fuels the fire under him to hop on the first plane to Baghdad, even though the film shows the three surviving Marines (who Rafael saved) urging him to stay home and take care of his family as the only male left in the house.
Rafael Sr., the father, died shortly before his son in 2001 in a trucking accident while at work.
“Every time I wake up and see my wife … I owe it all to him,” says Sgt. Nicholas Jones, who the film depicts as the closest friend Rafael had in the corps leading to his death.
Acts’s other half is of footage taken around the time Marines invaded Fallujah, what’s now being referred to as the most horrific epoch during the war. Soldiers, with Rafael, sleep in abandoned homes. Military procedures are shared. A soldier is cut above his left eye by a ricocheting bullet and they bomb the heck out of numerous buildings.
The film appears void of political grandstanding and there are no monologues by the president, just a soldier’s life on a personal level.
“War is a real tragedy in my mind,” says executive producer Braga. “Do I condone it? Do I support it? Not necessarily … but I knew the story I wanted to tell. It’s about two families.”
The Act of Honor will be simulcast in English on The History Channel and in Spanish on the History Channel en Español on Saturday, May 19 at 7 pm.