FALLUJAH, Iraq -- "You’re still here, don’t forget that. Tell your kids, your grandkids, what Sgt. Peralta did for you and the other Marines today."
As a combat correspondent, I was attached to Company A, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment for Operation Al Fajr, to make sure the stories of heroic actions and the daily realities of battle were told.
On this day, I found myself without my camera. With the batteries dead, I decided to leave the camera behind and live up to the ethos "every Marine a rifleman," by volunteering to help clear the fateful buildings that lined streets.
After seven days of intense fighting in Fallujah, the Marines of 1/3 embraced a new day with a faceless enemy.
We awoke November 15, 2004, around day-break in the abandoned, battle-worn house we had made our home for the night. We shaved, ate breakfast from a Meal, Ready-to-Eat pouch and waited for the word to move.
The word came, and we started what we had done since the operation began – clear the city of insurgents, building by building.
As an attachment to the unit, I had been placed as the third man in a six-man group, or what Marines call a 'stack.' Two stacks of Marines were used to clear a house. Moving quickly from the third house to the fourth, our order in the stack changed. I found Sgt. Rafael Peralta in my spot, so I fell in behind him as we moved toward the house.
A Mexican-American who lived in San Diego, Peralta earned his citizenship after he joined the Marine Corps. He was a platoon scout, which meant he could have stayed back in safety while the squads of 1st Platoon went into the danger filled streets, but he was constantly asking to help out by giving them an extra Marine. I learned by speaking with him and other Marines the night before that he frequently put his safety, reputation and career on the line for the needs and morale of the junior Marines around him.
When we reached the fourth house, we breached the gate and swiftly approached the building. The first Marine in the stack kicked in the front door, revealing a locked door to their front and another at the right.
Kicking in the doors simultaneously, one stack filed swiftly into the room to the front as the other group of Marines darted off to the right.
"Clear!" screamed the Marines in one of the rooms followed only seconds later by another shout of "clear!" from the second room. One word told us all we wanted to know about the rooms: there was no one in there to shoot at us.
We found that the two rooms were adjoined and we had another closed door in front of us. We spread ourselves throughout the rooms to avoid a cluster going through the next door.
Two Marines stacked to the left of the door as Peralta, rifle in hand, tested the handle. I watched from the middle, slightly off to the right of the room as the handle turned with ease.
Ready to rush into the rear part of the house, Peralta threw open the door.
‘POP! POP! POP!’ Multiple bursts of cap-gun-like sounding AK-47 fire rang throughout the house.
Three insurgents with AK-47s were waiting for us behind the door.
Peralta was hit several times in his upper torso and face at point-blank range by the fully-automatic 7.62mm weapons employed by three terrorists.
Mortally wounded, he jumped into the already cleared, adjoining room, giving the rest of us a clear line of fire through the doorway to the rear of the house.
We opened fire, adding the bangs of M-16A2 service rifles, and the deafening, rolling cracks of a Squad Automatic Weapon, or “SAW,” to the already nerve-racking sound of the AKs. One Marine was shot through the forearm and continued to fire at the enemy.
I fired until Marines closer to the door began to maneuver into better firing positions, blocking my line of fire. Not being an infantryman, I watched to see what those with more extensive training were doing.
I saw four Marines firing from the adjoining room when a yellow, foreign-made, oval-shaped grenade bounced into the room, rolling to a stop close to Peralta’s nearly lifeless body.
In an act living up to the heroes of the Marine Corps’ past, such as Medal of Honor recipients Pfc. James LaBelle and Lance Cpl. Richard Anderson, Peralta – in his last fleeting moments of consciousness- reached out and pulled the grenade into his body. LaBelle fought on Iwo Jima and Anderson in Vietnam, both died saving their fellow Marines by smothering the blast of enemy grenades.
Peralta did the same for all of us in those rooms.
I watched in fear and horror as the other four Marines scrambled to the corners of the room and the majority of the blast was absorbed by Peralta’s now lifeless body. His selflessness left four other Marines with only minor injuries from smaller fragments of the grenade.
During the fight, a fire was sparked in the rear of the house. The flames were becoming visible through the door.
The decision was made by the Marine in charge of the squad to evacuate the injured Marines from the house, regroup and return to finish the fight and retrieve Peralta’s body.
We quickly ran for shelter, three or four houses up the street, in a house that had already been cleared and was occupied by the squad’s platoon.
As Staff Sgt. Jacob M. Murdock took a count of the Marines coming back, he found it to be one man short, and demanded to know the whereabouts of the missing Marine.
"Sergeant Peralta! He’s dead! He’s f------ dead," screamed Lance Cpl. Adam Morrison, a machine gunner with the squad, as he came around a corner. "He’s still in there. We have to go back."
The ingrained code Marines have of never leaving a man behind drove the next few moments. Within seconds, we headed back to the house unknown what we may encounter yet ready for another round.
I don't remember walking back down the street or through the gate in front of the house, but walking through the door the second time, I prayed that we wouldn't lose another brother.
We entered the house and met no resistance. We couldn't clear the rest of the house because the fire had grown immensely and the danger of the enemy’s weapons cache exploding in the house was increasing by the second.
Most of us provided security while Peralta's body was removed from the house.
We carried him back to our rally point and upon returning were told that the other Marines who went to support us encountered and killed the three insurgents from inside the house.
Later that night, while I was thinking about the day’s somber events, Cpl. Richard A. Mason, an infantryman with Headquarters Platoon, who, in the short time I was with the company became a good friend, told me, "You’re still here, don’t forget that. Tell your kids, your grandkids, what Sgt. Peralta did for you and the other Marines today."
As a combat correspondent, this is not only my job, but an honor.
Throughout Operation Al Fajr, we were constantly being told that we were making history, but if the books never mention this battle in the future, I’m sure that the day and the sacrifice that was made, will never be forgotten by the Marines who were there.