Sgt. Rafael Peralta (AP)
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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will not award fallen Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta the Medal of Honor, deciding new evidence wasn't enough to warrant an upgrade from the nation's second highest valor decoration, Marine Corps Times has learned.
Panetta made his decision after reviewing new evidence in the case, said Joe Kasper, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, who has pushed for the upgrade. The congressman was informed of Panetta's decision by Jeh Johnson, general counsel of the Defense Department, Kasper said.
Peralta, 25, is credited with shielding fellow Marines from a grenade blast in his dying moments during house-to-house fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, on Nov. 15, 2004. The Marine Corps subsequently put him up for the nation's top valor award, the Medal of Honor, but it was denied in 2008 by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, infuriating the Marine's family and Marines across the country.
Gates decided at the time that the evidence in Peralta's case was inconclusive, saying it is unclear whether the Marine made a conscious decision to smother the grenade because he already had been mortally wounded in the head by a ricocheting rifle round. The Navy Department awarded Peralta the Navy Cross instead, and said in his citation that he had "reached out and pulled the grenade to his body" — a selfless, heroic act typically associated exclusively with the Medal of Honor.
Johnson, the Pentagon's top lawyer, raised questions about eyewitness accounts in the case and "indicated that upgrading the award now would require overturning the decision of a previous secretary" while explaining Panetta's decision to Hunter, Kasper said.
Pentagon officials could not immediately be reached for comment. Panetta was in Afghanistan on Wednesday, visiting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and top U.S. commanders there.
Kasper, Hunter's spokesman, said the congressman isn't done pushing the issue.
"The Peralta family was informed of the secretary's decision this morning, but it was conveyed that Representative Hunter remains committed to seeing that Sergeant Peralta receives the highest award for military valor — the only award that Sergeant Peralta deserves," Kasper said.
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