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New eyewitnesses back Medal of Honor for Peralta

Jan. 2, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Sgt. Rafael Peralta, 25, of San Diego, died Nov. 15, 2004, as result of enemy action in Anbar province, Iraq.
Sgt. Rafael Peralta, 25, of San Diego, died Nov. 15, 2004, as result of enemy action in Anbar province, Iraq. (Marine Corps)
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The lawmaker who has spearheaded a campaign to see fallen Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta receive the Medal of Honor has sent more supporting evidence, in the form of new eyewitness accounts, to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

Peralta, 25, was killed in action in Fallujah, Iraq, on Nov. 15, 2004. Marine officials recommended that he receive the nation’s highest valor award because he had covered a grenade with his body to protect fellow Marines. But then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates questioned whether Peralta had acted consciously to absorb the blast, since he had also taken a ricocheting rifle round to the head. Peralta ultimately received the Navy Cross, the next highest award, in 2008.

In the new witness statements that Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., sent to Hagel this week, a Navy corpsman and a former Marine amphibious assault vehicle section leader, whose names were both redacted in copies reviewed by Marine Corps Times, describe what they saw in the aftermath of the grenade blast.

“Upon inspection of Sergeant Peralta, I noticed that his torso had several shrapnel wounds, which appear to be consistent with the claim that he had reached for the grenade and pulled it under his body before it went off,” the then-corpsman wrote. “I also noticed that Peralta had an entrance wound to his face accompanied with an exit wound at the back of his head. ... Given that the claim of heroism provided by his fellow Marines adequately lines up with the nature of Sergeant Peralta’s wounds from the grenade blast he received, I strongly believe that Sergeant Rafael Peralta should be [awarded] the Medal of Honor.”

The Marine section leader said Peralta’s rifle and flak jacket, which he inspected soon after Peralta’s death, were badly damaged by shrapnel.

The flak jacket “looked like a mangled mess of fibers,” the Marine eyewitness wrote. “The front ballistic plate was riddled with holes and [was] barely being held in place with fibers of the garment. The back of the jacket seemed to be untouched by any damage.”

A portion of the evidence that appears to conflict with accounts of Peralta reaching out to pull the grenade underneath him comes from the pathologist who conducted Peralta’s autopsy. He thought the grenade may have exploded near Peralta’s left leg and raised questions about how he could have acted deliberately after sustaining the gunshot wound to his head. But Hunter submitted a sheaf of new evidence to Hagel’s office late last year, including a different pathology report and video shot shortly after the grenade blast, which casts Peralta’s case more favorably.

George Sabga, a retired Marine master gunnery sergeant and attorney who serves as a spokesman for the Peralta family, said the new statements support those who have argued that Peralta deserves the highest valor award.

“The only way there could be damage to the front of the flak jacket, which there was, and to the cartridge area and to the weapon, is if after the grenade came into the room, [Peralta] reached out to the grenade,” Sabga said.

Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta, opted not to overturn Gates’s decision regarding Peralta’s award, but Hagel, who took office in February, has shown interest in reopening the matter.

Defense Department Assistant Press Secretary Carl Woog said in early December that Hagel was familiarizing himself with the history of the case. At the time, though, it had not been formally reopened.

A Hunter spokesman, Joe Kasper, pointed to former Army Capt. Will Swenson’s recent Medal of Honor award in October, after years of being stuck in paperwork limbo, as a sign that the system is changing in a way that favors an upgrade in Peralta’s award.

“We’ve always said that Will Swenson and Peralta are the two keys to restoring integrity to the Medal of Honor process,” Kasper said. “... If [Peralta’s] case is corrected, then this process will have gone a long way ... to providing every bit of confidence.”

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