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WASHINGTON -- The Marine Corps thought Sgt. Rafael Peralta deserved the Medal of Honor for smothering a grenade to save his fellow Marines in Iraq in 2004. Three secretaries of defense rejected the service's recommendation, and Peralta was instead awarded the Navy Cross. Peralta's supporters believe he was denied the recognition he deserves because of a dysfunctional system that inconsistently awards medals for valor to troops who fought in the post-9/11 wars.
Peralta was an American by choice. He was born in Mexico City in 1979, but moved to the U.S. to escape gang violence and attend school in San Diego. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2000 on the same day that he got his green card, and later became an American citizen while on active duty.
Peralta loved his adopted country. The U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and his Marine Corps graduation certificate -- all neatly framed -- adorned his bedroom wall at his family's home. "Be proud of me, bro . . . and be proud of being an American," Peralta wrote in a letter to his younger brother Ricardo after he joined the service.
Peralta deployed to Iraq with 1st Platoon, Company A, First Battalion, Third Marines, Regimental Combat Team 7, First Marine Division, to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom. His life came to an end in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.
The day before he was killed, Peralta volunteered to join an undermanned squad of Marines conducting house-clearing operations and act as a platoon guide, according to Marine accounts. On the morning of Nov. 15, 2004, the squad approached a house in Fallujah where they suspected insurgents might be hiding. The point man kicked in the door, and Peralta and other team members entered the home. Insurgents opened fire, and Marines who were standing behind Peralta shot back. Peralta fell wounded. It was later determined that Peralta was likely hit by friendly fire. As Peralta lay on the ground, one of the insurgents tossed a grenade at the Marines.
What happened next is the heart of the dispute over whether the fallen Marine deserves the Medal of Honor.
The enemy threw a grenade "that landed next to Sgt. Peralta, who was lying on the deck. He reached over and pulled the grenade into himself," a Marine who was in the room with Peralta said in an after-action statement the day Peralta was killed. The Marine's name was redacted in official documents obtained by Stars and Stripes.
Other Marines who were there offered similar but slightly varying accounts. Five claimed to have seen Peralta pull the grenade toward his body, and one said he saw him reach for it but wasn't sure whether he grabbed it.
After reviewing the evidence and sworn witness testimony, Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski, the commander of the 1st Marine Division, recommended Peralta be given the Medal of Honor.
"I believe Sergeant Peralta made a conscious, heroic decision to cover the grenade and minimize the effects he knew it would have on the rest of his Marine team. As he lay injured, rather than using his strength in an attempt to save himself, he knowingly and selflessly opted to give his life for his fellow Marines. ... Sergeant Peralta's actions clearly rise above and beyond the call of duty and deserve to be recognized by award of our Nation's highest combat award, the Congressional Medal of Honor," Natonski wrote in January 2005.
But in a preliminary report, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy concluded that Peralta would not have been able to sweep the grenade toward himself.
"The head gunshot wound would have been immediately incapacitating and nearly instantly fatal. He could not have executed any meaningful motions," the examiner wrote in an April 2005 email. The examiner's name was redacted in documents obtained by Stars and Stripes.
The medical examiner said that the shrapnel pattern on Peralta's body suggested that the grenade exploded "a few feet" away from him.
Two neurosurgeons and one neurologist who later examined the autopsy report but did not examine Peralta's body disagreed with the medical examiner, arguing that it was possible that Peralta did what his fellow Marines claimed. Supporters of Peralta's nomination argued that the grenade fuse found lodged in Peralta's body armor demonstrated that the grenade did explode up against him.
Natonski stood by his recommendation, which made its way to then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for his approval.
Gates: No choice
In his recently published memoir, Gates revealed that he initially approved the Medal of Honor recommendation in 2008, despite some dissenting views from the medical community.
"In light of the unanimous support of the entire uniformed leadership involved, I approved the recommendation," he wrote. "I was satisfied that Sergeant Peralta met all the criteria and deserved the Medal of Honor."
However, Gates said he was pressured to revisit his decision.
"After I signed the recommendation to the president, I was informed that a complaint had been made to the department's inspector general that Peralta could not have consciously taken the action credited ... and therefore did not meet the criteria for the award. The inspector general intended to carry out an investigation unless I took some action to deal with the complaint. ... I decided that the only way to clear the air quietly was to ask a special panel to look into the allegation," Gates wrote.
The panel included forensic pathologists, a neurosurgeon, a retired general officer who had commanded in Iraq, and a Medal of Honor recipient. They pored over the evidence, including medical reports, and talked to subject matter experts, according to Gates.
"The panel concluded unanimously that, with his wounds, Peralta could not have consciously pulled the grenade under him," Gates wrote. "I had no choice but to withdraw my approval."
The Navy Cross award citation, approved by the Secretary of the Navy, tells a very different version of events than Gates' panel.
"The grenade came to rest near Sergeant Peralta's head. Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, Sergeant Peralta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast and shielding fellow Marines only feet away," the citation reads.
Doug Sterner, the chief archivist for Military Times Hall of Valor website and a leading expert on military awards, is highly critical of the unusual way the Peralta case review unfolded.
"We've never put people under a microscope like this before. They've got the eyewitness statements of the Marines. It makes absolutely no sense to me," Sterner told Stars and Stripes. "If I was a Marine, I would be pissed to the core that an Army medical officer decided what awards a Marine gets. ... I think it's unprecedented. I've never heard of that happening before."
Gates' successors, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel, reviewed the case after new information came to light. In a letter to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., Panetta said he decided not to overturn Gates' decision because the evidence didn't meet the "beyond-a-reasonable-doubt" standard for the Medal of Honor. In a news release explaining his decision not to reopen the nomination, Hagel said there was "considerable medical and professional doubt" about whether Peralta could have done what the Marines said he did.
The Defense Department's arguments don't satisfy Peralta's supporters.
"When I saw the grenade, I thought I was dead. [But] Peralta swept it up underneath his body," former Marine Cpl. Robert Reynolds told Stars and Stripes. The medical people who said Peralta couldn't have consciously moved the grenade "are 110 percent mistaken, because I wouldn't be here today if he didn't do it . . . I could reach out and touch Peralta, that's how close I was to him. If that grenade wasn't underneath his body I would have been hammered. I mean, I would have been dead because I was well within that killing radius. [But] I didn't have one ounce of shrapnel from the grenade in my body.
"He clearly deserves [the Medal of Honor]. I mean, there's Marines still alive today that he saved."
Peralta's family has publicly expressed disappointment with the Pentagon's decision.
"It's really emotional for the family because his nomination for the Medal of Honor has now been turned down more than once," Ricardo Peralta said last year before Hagel made his decision, according to a Marine Corps news release. "But we know that there's not a single decoration or medal that they can give him that will make us more proud. We're proud to the fullest."
Hunter has been pushing hard to get Peralta the Medal of Honor for nearly a decade. The congressman is a former Marine officer who also fought in the battle of Fallujah. Peralta's family live in his district.
"It's a sad state of affairs for a broken awards system," Hunter told Stars and Stripes. "The Peralta case is representative of the lack of recognition by DOD of our combat men and women. ... There's not a single living Medal of Honor [recipient] from Iraq. That's complete lack of recognition by DOD, and by the [Bush and Obama] administrations, and by the offices of the secretaries of defense who were in control at those points of time, of our men and women who have served."
"It seems we can go back and find heroes in generations past [to receive the Medal of Honor], but we've only been able to find [14 – soon to be 15] Medals of Honor in the wars on terrorism. That to me tells me how broken this system is," Sterner said.
Sterner cited Army Sgt. First Class Alwyn Cashe as another example of a servicemember not getting the medal he deserved in the post-9/11 wars.
When Cashe's Bradley Fighting Vehicle was engulfed in flames after striking an IED outside Daliaya, Iraq, in 2005, the soldier -- despite being drenched in fuel -- repeatedly went back inside the vehicle and pulled every one of his six comrades from the inferno. His uniform burned off his body and his flesh was charred; Cashe later succumbed to his wounds. He received the Silver Star, despite having allowed himself to burn to death to save his fellow soldiers. Others troops have received higher awards for doing what many would consider less heroic deeds.
Sterner believes the awards system has become so inconsistent that it's time for a complete review of all the medals awarded at the Silver Star level and above for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not all Marines believe that Peralta deserves the Medal of Honor.
Shortly after Hagel rendered his decision, two Marines who said they were in the house in Fallujah when the grenade was thrown told the Washington Post that accounts of Peralta reaching for the grenade were fabricated after the attack. One of them, Reggie Brown, ran out of the house when the grenade was tossed and didn't see it detonate. Davi Allen, who was wounded in the backside by shrapnel from the grenade blast -- which some cite as evidence that Allen was facing away from Peralta when the explosion occurred and couldn't have seen what Peralta was doing -- said Peralta didn't reach for the grenade and it detonated near Peralta but not under him.
Brown and Allen suggested that Marines at the scene decided to make up the story of Peralta's heroism as a way of honoring him or out of guilt because Peralta was killed by friendly fire. Tony Gonzales, who was outside the house during the battle with insurgents, has also claimed that some of the Marines made up the story.
Reynolds described their alternative version as "B.S." He said there wasn't enough time for everyone to invent a story because he and other Marines were quickly medically evacuated out of the area after getting wounded by the insurgents. Reynolds said he didn't discuss the incident with anyone until he gave an official statement after he was in recovery from gunshot wounds he sustained during the firefight.
Nicholas Jones, the squad leader, told the Post that the conspiracy claims are "ridiculous."
Aside from Allen, none of the Marines who saw Peralta on the floor and said he reached for the grenade have changed the substance of their stories or accused anyone of falsifying the original narrative.
Process under review
Hunter is holding out hope that one day Peralta will get the recognition that many believe he deserves.
"It's a dead horse. In 25 years when you have a president look back like President Obama just did towards Vietnam and the men and women that did not get awarded medals and did not get recognition when they should have, that's probably what we are looking at," he said. "It might be 25 years. Who knows? But I think if somebody [who makes these decisions] sees this objectively, I think they're going to see this in the same way that I do and most of the people that know about the case do, which is that [Peralta] should receive the Medal of Honor."
Peralta's case bears similarities to that of medically retired Cpl. William "Kyle" Carpenter, who is believed to have jumped on an enemy grenade to save a fellow Marine in Afghanistan. Carpenter, however, will be awarded the Medal of Honor on June 19 for his actions, the White House has announced.
There were no eyewitnesses to verify that Carpenter pounced on the grenade, because Carpenter and the Marine he saved were so injured by the blast that they are unable to recall exactly what happened.
"I'm not taking anything away from [Carpenter] at all," Reynolds said. "He did what he did honorably. [But] there was no eyewitness accounts to it. ... and yet he's getting that Medal of Honor. Sgt. Peralta takes a grenade [and] there are several eyewitness accounts ... There's all this evidence proving that he did it, and he's being denied."
In March, Hagel ordered a review of the entire awards system with the purpose of determining how it can be improved. A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity so that he could more freely discuss the Peralta case, told Stars and Stripes that the controversy surrounding Peralta didn't influence Hagel's decision to launch the review. But he said the larger issue of whether the Pentagon is too stingy when it comes to awarding the Medal of Honor will be examined.
"[Hagel] believes we should be asking ourselves that question," according to the official, who is familiar with the secretary's thinking on this issue.
Despite his ruling in the Peralta case, Gates thinks that the military is too reluctant when it comes to the Medal of Honor.
"Too few [Medals of Honor] have been awarded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in which there have been so many heroic, selfless deeds," Gates wrote in his memoir. "I once asked [former Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter] Chiarelli why so few had been recommended. He said because medals had been passed out so freely in Vietnam, succeeding officers were determined to raise the bar. They had raised it too high, he thought."
The new review will examine, among other things, whether there is enough consistency in the awards process, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters when the initiative was announced. "[Hagel] wants to examine the degree to which the services submit and evaluate and decide on major combat awards. I think he would like to get a better sense of what discrepancies there may be between the services and do those discrepancies need to be closed. The answer may be no, but I think he wants to ask those questions," Kirby said.
But Kirby said Hagel realizes that the awards system will always be imperfect, regardless of what changes are made.
"It's not a science, and I don't think he's trying to make it a science. But he does think it's time, after 13 years of war, to take a fresh look at how we think about this," according to Kirby.
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