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Panetta defends denying Peralta MoH upgrade

Dec. 13, 2012 - 02:21PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 13, 2012 - 02:21PM  |  
Sgt. Rafael Peralta
Sgt. Rafael Peralta (AP)
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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended on Thursday his decision to deny fallen Sgt. Rafael Peralta the Medal of Honor, saying new evidence presented on the Marine's behalf falls short of what's needed to award him the nation's highest valor award.

A pathology report and video recorded moments after Peralta died in a grenade blast on Nov. 15, 2004, do not constitute "new, substantive and material information" required for Panetta to recommend that">Peralta's Navy Cross be upgraded to the Medal of Honor, the defense secretary said in a letter to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R.-Calif. The congressman submitted the evidence earlier this year on behalf of Peralta, who is credited with saving the lives of several fellow Marines in Fallujah, Iraq, by covering the grenade before it exploded during a house-clearing operation.

"Though eyewitness accounts are mostly (but not entirely) consistent, there is considerable medical and professional doubt about whether Sgt. Peralta could have performed the actions attributed to him, and whether the grenade exploded under him, as some suggested," Panetta said in his letter. "The doubts about this come from, among others, the Armed Forces Medical Examiner and his Armed Forces Medical Examiner System's board of certified pathologists, and a number of other medical professionals who have looked at the case."

The Marine Corps put up Peralta, 25, for the nation's highest valor award posthumously, and it was subsequently approved by the Navy Department. The case was rebuffed in 2008 by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, infuriating the Peralta family and Marines across the country.

Gates decided the evidence in Peralta's case was inconclusive and left unclear whether Peralta 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.

Panetta said in his letter to Hunter that he "cannot in good conscience" go against Gates' decision, which came after an unprecedented review of Peralta's case that Gates called for in 2008. A five-member team that included a civilian neurosurgeon and two civilian forensic pathologists reviewed the evidence, with each concluding the evidence did not support the Medal of Honor, defense officials said.

"I cannot, consistent with my responsibilities, disregard this evidence, as they cast more than a reasonable doubt on what happened November 14, 2004," Panetta said in his letter, though he misidentified the date of Peralta's death. "To disregard this evidence, or to abandon the beyond-a-reasonable doubt standard for the MOH, would be unfair to all others considered for the MOH but whose heroic actions fell just short of this rigorous evidentiary standard."

Hunter said in a statement that he appreciated Panetta reviewing the new evidence presented, but disagreed with the "arguments of convenience" used to rebuff the case.

"For the first and only time on record, Secretary Gates formed a scientific panel consisting of several forensic experts to refute the findings and recommendation of both the Marine Corps and the Navy," Hunter said. "Until then, there was absolutely no disagreement that Sergeant Peralta's actions were in the spirit and tradition of the Medal of Honor. Secretary Gates manufactured the doubt the same doubt that let Secretary Panetta not to award the Medal of Honor."

Panetta said in his letter that "this has been a difficult case for me." Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said the secretary personally reviewed Gates' original recommendation along with the new evidence Hunter submitted.

"Given Sgt. Peralta's courageous sacrifice and faithful service to our country, Secretary Panetta took great personal interest in the matter and personally reviewed the case," Christensen said in an email. "This was a difficult decision for the secretary, and was not reached lightly."

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