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LOS ANGELES — The Department of Defense has reaffirmed its decision not to award the Medal of Honor to a Hawaii-based Marine who witnesses say threw himself on a grenade to save his colleagues during fierce fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.
Rep. Duncan Hunter and other politicians had appealed a decision to instead award Sgt. Rafael Peralta of San Diego the Navy Cross, the second-highest medal the Navy can bestow for valor.
Peralta's nomination was tainted by reports he was hit in the head by friendly fire shortly before an insurgent lobbed the grenade, but witnesses described how the mortally wounded Marine deliberately grabbed the grenade and pulled it to his chest to protect fellow troops from the blast.
In a letter dated Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said five independent experts — three medical doctors, a general and a Medal of Honor recipient — reviewed the forensic evidence and unanimously found it did not meet standards because they could not be sure Peralta acted deliberately.
California's senators and five San Diego-area representatives wrote to President George W. Bush, asking him to reconsider the decision and recognize Peralta's sacrifice to his comrades and his country.
"Intentionally absorbing a grenade blast to protect one's comrades in arms has been traditionally recognized by awarding the Medal of Honor," they wrote.
In September, Hawaii's congressional delegation asked President Bush to consider posthumously awarding the Medal of Honor to Peralta, noting several fellow Marines verified Peralta acted intentionally.
"Clearly, Sergeant Peralta made a deliberate decision to absorb the grenade blast in order to protect the lives of the Marines fighting directly by his side," their letter said.
"It doesn't seem fair or valid to me," the Marine's mother, Rose Peralta, 51, who lives near San Diego, told The Associated Press. "All the boys who were there say he was alive when he grabbed (the grenade)."
Peralta said she was surprised to get a response from Gates, when the politicians had directed their latest appeal to the president.
George Sagba, an attorney for Peralta's family, said he thinks the officials don't want to admit they made a mistake.
Sagba noted the experts did not rule out the possibility that Peralta, who had been shot in the head and upper body during a house-to-house search, could have intentionally reached for the grenade. Sagba said he is pursuing home video shot by Peralta's colleagues on the day he died.
"This video can show exactly who was there, the blast fragments, all that stuff," he said.
The family intends to appeal if President-elect Barack Obama appoints a new defense secretary.
"People always ask me, ‘How is the appeal going? Don't stop fighting. How can I help?"' Rosa Peralta said in Spanish. "Even without the medal, my son is a hero, just like all everyone who fights for this country and liberty."
Peralta, who was assigned to Kaneohe's 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, moved to San Diego from Tijuana as a teenager. He was 25.