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When Sgt. Rafael Peralta died smothering an exploding grenade in Fallujah to save his buddies, his place in Marine history was cemented.
The Corps put him up for the Medal of Honor. The Navy Department approved it and moved it to the Defense Department.
Just about everyone thought it was a done deal.
But Peralta will receive instead the prestigious Navy Cross, the nation's second-highest award for combat valor, the Corps announced Sept. 17. Rather than cause for celebration, the move angered his family, veterans and other Marines.
"I don't want that medal," said Peralta's mother, Rosa. "I won't accept it. It doesn't seem fair to me."
The decision was made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, following a review of Peralta's records by a retired Multi-National Corps-Iraq commanding general, a Medal of Honor recipient and three medical professionals, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. Gates ordered the review after receiving the Medal of Honor recommendation from the Navy.
The determination raises questions among Peralta's friends, family and fellow Marines, as questions about the circumstances of his death continue to swirl:
Did politics play a role in the decision?
Could Peralta have knowingly reached for the grenade after sustaining a mortal gunshot wound to the head?
And, most importantly, if dying while covering a grenade to shield your buddies doesn't rate the Medal of Honor, what does?
One last firefight
By all accounts, Peralta was proud to be a grunt.
Assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, he asked to go back to the fight rather than serve as a recruiter, and he frequently volunteered to go on combat patrols, fellow Marines said.
On Nov. 15, 2004, Peralta and his rifle squad barged into a house during the second battle of Fallujah and found themselves facing a hail of bullets, Marine officials said.
Peralta, 25, was shot in the head during the initial exchange of gunfire, but he had the presence of mind to grab a grenade tossed near him on the floor and absorb the blast with his body, shielding squad members who were only feet away, Marine officials said.
Some questions about the firefight were raised during the investigation of Peralta's death, however, according to military documents.
A summary of the Marine investigation into Peralta's death, dated Nov. 17, 2005, said a corporal who arrived shortly after the incident believed another sergeant involved in the firefight "pressured some of the Marines to say that Sergeant Peralta jumped on the grenade."
The sergeant — who had been promoted to staff sergeant when the investigation was released — denied the accusation, the summary said. A lance corporal and another corporal involved also rejected the notion.
The cause of Peralta's death is listed as "a penetrating gunshot wound to the head" and "ballistic injuries of the head from a grenade explosion," according to the summary. Overall, it backs the statements of other Marines involved in the firefight and suggests Peralta was hit by a bullet that ricocheted.
"The Marines involved in the firefight gave an honest account of their perception of Sergeant Peralta's actions," the summary said. "They were not pressured to exaggerate his valor in the hope that Sergeant Peralta would ultimately be awarded the Medal of Honor."
But Col. Eric Berg III, an Army pathologist who autopsied Peralta's remains, said in a 2005 report that the head wound would have been "nearly instantly fatal. He could not have executed any meaningful motions."
One officer familiar with the investigation said much of the research focused on whether the gunshot wound Peralta suffered damaged his brain enough to prevent him from making the decision to grab the grenade.
"Essentially, the issues come down to whether or not he consciously jumped on the grenade or whether he sort of fell onto it while dying," the officer said. "There's such a fine line between the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor."
The case to get Peralta a Medal of Honor took an unusual turn after the Navy Department made a positive recommendation to the Defense Department in October 2006.
After receiving the recommendation, the Pentagon sent it back to the Navy with a request for more information, Whitman said. The Navy Department returned it to Gates in June 2007, six months after he took office.
Gates then asked five individuals — including a civilian neurosurgeon and two civilian forensic pathologists — to participate in an additional review of the records because of "contradictory evidence" issued.
"Each of those individuals had access to all the information, plus detailed medical reports that were not available at the time of the initial review," Whitman said.
The five participated in a "very rigorous review" that included interviews with other subject-matter experts, inspecting the evidence and studying a re-creation of the event. In the end, "Each of the individuals independently recommended to the Secretary of Defense that the evidence did not support the award of the Medal of Honor," Whitman said.
Contrary to some media reports, the five reviewing the recommendation did not constitute a "panel" and did not make a unified, single recommendation, Whitman said. It was not disclosed whether the individuals discussed the matter together.
Whitman declined to identify those involved in the review but said the civilian medical professionals were all retired service members. A defense official identified the former commander as retired Army Lt. Gen. John Vines.
Gates made his decision sometime in the weeks before the Sept. 17 announcement, officials said.
"The standard for the Medal of Honor is extremely high — and by instruction, ‘There must be no margin of doubt or possibility of error in awarding this honor.' So it is exacting, and it leaves no margin for doubt or possibility of error in any fashion," Whitman said.
Pentagon officials would not elaborate on the evidence the individuals reviewed, or provide a general sense of their conclusions.
Asked whether the inclusion of the neurosurgeon and forensic pathologists meant the focus was on Peralta's medical records, Whitman said, "I will leave you to draw your own conclusions based on the type of people that he asked to take a look at this."
Asked if that meant the five questioned whether Peralta was in complete control of his mental faculties at the time of his act, Whitman declined to comment.
Reassurances that Peralta receiving the Navy Cross should be considered an honor have done little to stem the anger of Peralta's family and Marine comrades.
The decision is "almost like somebody called me a liar," said Sgt. Nicholas Jones, 25, who was with Peralta that day.
Jones, a recruiter, said Peralta's actions have become part of Marine lore, as drill instructors and officer-candidate instructors repeat it to new Marines.
Reserve Lt. Col. Scott Marconda, who investigated the incident in 2004 as a major and judge advocate, said: "There's no way that grenade got under the center of mass of his body without him putting it there. I'm not a cheerleader. It is what it is. And my point is: I believe that he did that."
George Sabga, an attorney who has served as a Peralta family spokesman, said the family fully expected the Medal of Honor nomination would be approved, especially after the Corps' own internal investigations validated the witnesses' statements and supported recommendations from senior Marine commanders that Peralta warranted the Medal of Honor.
"You had three and a half years of investigations, and now you are raising doubt?" Sabga asked.
Staff writers Gidget Fuentes, Bryan Mitchell, Bill McMichael and Rick Maze contributed to this report. Also contributing: Gregg Zoroya, USA Today, and Willam Cole, The Honolulu Advertiser.