Marine Corps Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who died in Iraq, has been mentioned as an alternative to Cesar Chavez for the name of a cargo ship under construction in San Diego. (U.S. Marines via AP)
This April 18, 1966 file photo shows Cesar Chavez, leader of the National Farm Workers Association, speaking to the press in San Francisco, Calif. (AP)
The Navy's decision to name a cargo ship now under construction after labor activist Cesar Chavez has drawn sharp criticism from one veteran lawmaker who says that a military war hero should receive the honor instead.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he understands the Navy's desire to honor Hispanic leaders, but the Navy may want to skip the politically divisive names and opt for an outstanding service member.
"If this decision were about recognizing the Hispanic community's contribution to our nation, many other names come to mind, including Marine Corps Sergeant Rafael Peralta, who was nominated for the Medal of Honor for action in Iraq. Peralta is one of many Hispanic war heroes -- some of whom are worthy of the same recognition," said Hunter, a Reserve lieutenant in the Marines who says he was informed of the decision by Navy officials Tuesday.
"And we cannot forget about John Finn, a lifelong San Diego resident who won the Medal of Honor for what he did during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor," Hunter, who represents eastern and northern San Diego county, said in a statement. "Finn is another worthy candidate that was evidently overlooked in the selection process."
Finn died last May at the age of 100.
Peralta was 25 when he died in a battle in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. After he was shot in the head by friendly fire, he pulled a grenade lobbed by an insurgent under his body before it detonated. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor for sacrificing his life to save the lives of several of his fellow comrades.
Peralta has not been awarded the Medal of Honor, but was offered the Navy Cross, the second highest honor in the Navy. His family declined to accept it.
George Sabga, an immigration lawyer representing the Peralta family, said it had not given a thought to naming a ship after him since it is still smarting over Peralta being denied a Medal of Honor.
"Whatever the congressman thinks is fine with the family," Sabga told FoxNews.com, adding that the family would have been honored had the ship been given Peralta's name.
"We believe since it is a military vessel, there has to be some connection to the military," Sabga said. "You'll have sailors serving on the ship. And the naming of a ship, it takes on a life of its own. If it was named after John Finn, they would know the history of John Finn. Or if it was named after Rafael Peralta, you would know his history. And for military people, that's very important."
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced the decision on Wednesday when he visited the facilities of General Dynamics NASSCO in San Diego's mostly Hispanic neighborhood, Barrio Logan. The neighborhood inspired General Dynamics to suggest naming the ship after Chavez, a spokesman said.
Chavez becomes the first Mexican American to have one of the last 14 Lewis and Clark-class cargo ships built by NASSCO for the Navy named after him. Other ships have been named after explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, civil rights activist Medgar Evers and pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart.
A Navy veteran who served for two years starting at the age of 17, Chavez is famous for helping to secure a U.S. law that recognized farmworkers' rights to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining. Chavez died in 1993 at the age of 66.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., praised the Navy for naming the ship after Chavez, calling it a "fitting tribute."
"I applaud Secretary Mabus for continuing the Navy's rich tradition of naming these supply ships after pioneers, explorers and visionaries by honoring Cesar Chavez, who worked tirelessly to promote fair working conditions and equal rights for all Americans," she said in a statement.
But Hunter, who sent Mabus a letter Wednesday asking him to consider naming the next available vessel after Peralta, said naming the ship after Chavez "shows the direction the Navy is heading."
"Naming a ship after Cesar Chavez goes right along with other recent decisions by the Navy that appear to be more about making a political statement than upholding the Navy's history and tradition," he said.