Honoring our veterans

     On Oct. 31, 2015, the Navy’s newest destroyer, the USS Rafael Peralta, was christened at Bath Iron Works.  The story of the namesake of the United States Navy’s newest Maine-built destroyer would be inspiring at any time.  On Veterans Day, it is an especially powerful reminder of the qualities that unite all who have served our country throughout our history.

     Sergeant Rafael Peralta was a United States Marine serving in Iraq.  On Nov. 15, 2004, during the Second Battle of Fallujah, while already suffering grievous wounds from enemy rifle fire, he selflessly grabbed a live grenade and absorbed the blast with his body to save the lives of his fellow Marines.  For his actions, Sergeant Peralta was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.  It is a story of astonishing valor.

     But remarkable as that courageous action was, it is only part of the story of a life devoted to accomplishment and service.  Sergeant Peralta’s family immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was a boy.  As a young man, he took on the responsibilities as head of the household after the passing of his father.  He joined the Marines after high school and became an American citizen.  In his bedroom in the family home, he hung three things: a copy of the United States Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and his Marine boot camp graduation certificate.

     These documents reflect not only his character, but also his devotion to our nation.  So does another document, a letter Sergeant Peralta wrote to his younger brother as Rafael was being deployed to Iraq.  That letter contained these words:  “Be proud of me, bro …and be proud of being an American.”

     Those virtues of courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty reverberate throughout American history, so it is appropriate that Veterans Day honors all who have served our nation, whether in times of war or in times of peace.  It is estimated that some 48 million Americans have served in uniform since the founding of our nation.  More than 1.3 million gave their lives to freedom’s cause; 1.5 million have been wounded, and some 38,000 have been counted among the missing.  Today, 22 million veterans live among us, including more than 127,000 right here in Maine.  Those numbers are impressive not because of their sheer size, but because they describe the history of a people united across the generations by the highest ideals of humanity.  

     At the christening, it was an honor to deliver remarks and to have an opportunity to meet Sergeant Peralta’s mother, Rosa Maria, and other members of his wonderful family. Each of them helped to forge the character of such a patriot.  On Veterans Day, we also pay tribute to the parents, the wives and husbands, the children, and the other loved ones of our veterans and our troops.  The families of those who serve face the challenges of carrying on with their day-to-day lives while suffering from pain caused by separation and worry, and, as with the Peralta family, often the grief of loss.  Their sacrifices are great, and we thank them as well.

     A large contingent of Marines attended the christening to remember their fallen comrade. Veterans Day is a somber observance for all who have served as they remember friends who paid the ultimate price for our freedom, or who lived beyond their years of military service but have since passed on.  We join them in honoring those who remain missing and in pledging that they never will be forgotten.

     The men and women of the United States Navy take great pride in the namesakes of their ships.  The officers and crew of the Rafael Peralta will serve on a ship that represents the highest values of our nation and our armed forces, perfectly described in its motto, “Fortis ad Finem” – Brave to the End.  Veterans Day strengthens the bond between those who serve today and those who served in the past and enhances the precious legacy that one generation passes on to the next.  

     The skilled workers at Bath Iron Works make “Bath built is best built” not just a slogan, but a way of life.  Their commitment to excellence, and perhaps most important, their hearts, go into every ship built there, and it was clear at the christening that they were inspired by Sergeant Peralta as they built the magnificent ship that would bear his name.  Veterans Day is a solemn reminder of the obligation we all have to be citizens worthy of the sacrifices of others.

     Veterans Day commemorates the precise moment when the guns of the First World War fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in the year 1918.  On that occasion, General John J. Pershing sent this message to the forces under his command: “Your deeds will live forever on the most glorious pages of American history.” For our veterans, for those who serve today, and certainly for such heroes as Marine Sergeant Rafael Peralta, those words ring true nearly a century later.