Fourth Defense Secretary Could Review Peralta Medal of Honor Case

The Pentagon's recent announcement that military service chiefs will review all Silver Star medals and service crosses awarded since Sept. 11, 2001, means the case of Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta could be headed to the secretary of defense for the fourth time.

In a Jan. 14 letter to Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-California, called on the general to submit the case of Peralta, a Navy Cross recipient, to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter for another review under the new mandate.

Hunter cited the Marine Corps' history of supporting Peralta for the Medal of Honor, the testimony of three eyewitnesses who say Peralta saved their lives, and recent comments from Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as support for giving the case another look.

Dunford mentioned Peralta by name earlier this week while voicing support for the Pentagon's medals review.

"I was with the division when he was recommended, and I reviewed that case, and I sat on the board, and I thought that particular case was certainly in the same category as others who received the Medal of Honor," he said Jan. 12, according to a Defense Department news report.

Peralta, a scout team leader assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, is credited with falling on an enemy grenade to save fellow Marines during a 2004 house-clearing mission in Fallujah, Iraq, using his body to absorb most of the shrapnel. He died as a result of his wounds and a ricochet bullet to the back of the head.

Peralta's family received his Navy Cross -- the second-highest award for combat valor -- in 2015, after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel determined that Peralta did not meet the standard of proof for the Medal of Honor. It was the third time in seven years that a defense secretary had reviewed the case and come to the same conclusion.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates described the first review of the Peralta case in 2008 in his 2014 memoir, Duty. In the book, he said he had initially approved Peralta for the medal, but had to reverse his decision after a team of pathologists concluded the Marine could not have acted consciously to save his fellow troops because of the damage he had already sustained from his head wound.

Hunter's letter to Neller challenges that conclusion, noting that part of the grenade fuse had been found embedded in the center of Peralta's body armor.

"By the Defense Department's logic, upon detonation of the grenade, the fuse would have had to travel through the concrete ground-level floor, move several feet to Peralta's location, and again cut through the concrete floor at a speed fast enough to embed securely in his body armor," Hunter wrote. "This is impossible. Bottom line: The position of previous Defense Department leadership is not supported by the facts."

Gates' successor, Leon Panetta, declined to re-open Peralta's case in 2012, saying the "margin of doubt" in the case was still too significant.

When Chuck Hagel succeeded Panetta in 2013, Hunter unearthed new evidence in support of Peralta's heroism, including his shrapnel-scarred rifle and photographs from the day of his death. Hagel reviewed all the evidence, old and new, but ultimately agreed with his predecessors' decisions.

Shortly after Hagel announced his decision, the Washington Post published an investigative story citing Marines who served with Peralta and claimed they had embellished the story of the sergeant's heroism after he was killed. Other eyewitnesses have contested this account, saying they stand by the original narrative.

"I was within arms' reach of Peralta when Peralta put the grenade under his body," Robert Reynolds of Ritsville, Washington, told Marine Corps Times in 2014. "If he hadn't done that, I would have been dead. Facts don't lie."

Hunter spokesman Joseph Kasper said it's possible new leadership at the Pentagon would see the Peralta case in a different light.

"Peralta falls within the parameters of upgrade eligibility," he said. "The Marine Corps has always said they stand firmly behind his nomination. It's another opportunity for an objective look."

For Peralta family friend and spokesman George Sabga, another review of the Marine's case would an opportunity for the Defense Department to right what he believes are inconsistencies in the medal awards process and a refusal on the part of senior leadership to critically evaluate decisions made by their predecessors.

"Peralta just hangs like a scab on this whole Medal of Honor thing," he said.

Peralta's sister, Icela Peralta Donald, told Military.com that the family hadn't heard about the medal review. She said she was thrilled at the possibility that her brother could have another opportunity to get the medal his family believes he deserves.

"This is amazing news," she said. "My whole entire family knows that one day, Rafa, my brother, is going to get the Medal of Honor. Hopefully not only my brother but all the people who deserve to be awarded will get it."

Donald said her family had not given up on the process, despite the series of disappointments they have weathered as one defense secretary after another declined to approve Peralta for the medal.

"It's not something that we have tried to fight," she said. "It's just that people have faith in what my brother did."

Last October, the family attended the christening of the USS Peralta, the Navy's new guided missile destroyer. Peralta's mother, Rosa Maria Peralta, donated her son's medal to the ship in a gesture of support for the troops who would deploy in her.

"We all just think that that's the heart of the ship," Donald said. "It's in the perfect place."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@monster.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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