At a back room in a plain building in Quantico, Virginia, in wall lockers and cardboard boxes stacked neatly on top are artifacts from past wars. On a table at the rear of the room sits a number of items and personal effects belonging to Marines who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. There’s a bloodstained Kevlar helmet, worn by Lt. Col. Ty Edwards, who survived a headshot in Afghanistan during an ambush in 2008, as well as a woodland blouse and a pair of dog tags belonging to Medal of Honor recipient Jason Dunham. Dunham was killed in Iraq in 2004 after he leapt atop a hand grenade, giving his life to save two other Marines.
These artifacts are part of the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ upcoming Global War on Terror exhibit, which will feature equipment and personal effects carried by Marines who served, fought, and in some cases, died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the front of the table is Sgt. Rafael Peralta’s M16-A4 service rifle, which will be displayed in an exhibit for the Second Battle of Fallujah — the exhibit itself will be set up to look like the Iraqi city. Born in Mexico, Peralta entered the United States illegally to attend school in San Diego, California. The same day he got his green card, he enlisted and earned his citizenship while serving in the Marines.
On Nov. 15, 2004, then a 25-year old team leader, with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, Peralta was leading his Marines through a series of houses in Fallujah, Iraq. As the Marines opened the back door of one of the houses, they came under intense enemy fire, and Peralta was shot. According to his Navy Cross citation, as he fell the enemy threw a hand grenade, and Peralta pulled it under his body, absorbing the blast and saving his fellow Marines at the cost of his own life.
Peralta’s service rifle and flak jacket are just two of a thousand artifacts from the country’s most recent wars, that will be on display when the museum’s newest exhibit opens.
They aren’t the clean and tidy items you expect to see in a museum. They feel less like artifacts, Peralta’s rifle and flak jacket in particular, feel more real; Dust and dirt from Iraq still cling to the rifle. Smudges and scratches run along the buttstock, possibly from how the weapon rested when slung across the front of his body armor. At a glance, it could be any deployed Marine’s rifle, until you notice the deep cuts and gashes along the hand guard; damage caused by the grenade blast that killed Peralta.
“To me, it speaks to the sacrifice. Even though it’s an inanimate object, a tool, it puts a human touch on the sacrifice that our men and women make each day,” said Al Houde, the senior ordnance curator. “If you look close enough at it, you can still see it still has all the dirt and the sand on it. I never cleaned it off. I left it just as it was.”
The rifle was added to the museum’s collection after a Marine who served with Peralta reached out and informed the museum that he had recovered the weapon after the battle, and that it was still stored safely in the unit’s armory, explained Houde.
Along with Peralta’s rifle, the museum also has his interceptor flak jacket. Dirt and dried blood spatter the front, and the pouches are partially shredded.
“When the artifact came to us — we do our standard cataloguing and photographing and it’s an object you’re treating with veneration whether it had been a Navy Cross recipient or anyone else — it was something that was powerful,” said Owen Conner, the museum’s uniforms and heraldry curator.
When the curators opened Peralta’s flak, they found a message scrawled inside. Written in faded blue ink are the words: GOD MY LIFE IS IN YOUR HANDS.
“To see that was kind of sad and shocking because we didn’t expect to see that little note in there,” said Conner. “Really, we were just surprised to see that in there, knowing the story and whose vest it was. You look at objects carefully, because they can tell you about a person and maybe give you a little insight into who they were and what was important to them.”
Founded in 2006, the museum has 50,000 artifacts from the Corps’ founding and on in its collection, but for the time being, the majority of items from its most recent wars are housed at the artifacts building at Headquarters Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia.
Construction on the newest wing is scheduled for completion in 2018. Then, the museum will funnel attendees through exhibits on Marine Corps recruit training, and then through the wars and battles Marines have fought in since the Corps founding, ending with the most recent: Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It is a celebration of their honor, courage, and commitment, but I also want people to realize there’s a cost to this history and the heroism of these Marines,” said Conner. “Having real tangible artifacts like this kind of brings that point home.”