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Marines at the scene provide their takes on what happened the day Sgt. Rafael Peralta was killed after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's office announced Friday he will not nominate him for the Medal of Honor. (Marine Corps)
Explosive new claims that challenge the truth of the accounts that made fallen Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta a candidate for the military’s highest honor are sending shock waves through the Marine Corps community, and some eyewitnesses are firing back.
The new accounts surfaced in a Washington Post report by Ernest Londono, published as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Friday he would not give Peralta, who was killed during a house-clearing mission in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, a third look for the Medal of Honor. In the report, two Marines who were with Peralta on his final mission say he did not sweep a live grenade under him, and that reports alleging that he did may have been intentionally fabricated after the fact.
One of the Marines in the house, Davi Allen, tells the Post he had his eyes on the grenade as it detonated, and saw it explode near, but not under, Peralta. Another, Reggie Brown, alleged that squad members had suggested in the wake of the blast that saying Peralta had jumped on the grenade, even thought he hadn’t, would be a good way to honor him.
“I can remember people saying it would be the right thing to do, to say that he did more than he did,” Brown told the Post. “I disagree with everything my fellow Marines proclaim to have seen.”
The suggestion that accounts of Peralta’s heroism may have been fabricated first surfaced in the initial command investigation in 2005, when Cpl. Tony Gonzales said he believed a sergeant had “pressured some of the Marines to say that Sgt. Peralta jumped on the grenade.”
But the colonel assigned to investigate the incident found no evidence to support that allegation.
That report, reviewed by the Marine Corps Times, found that Peralta had likely been shot by friendly fire and that his death was a result of a bullet fragment to the head as well as wounds from a grenade blast.
“The statements of the Marines involved in the firefight on November 15,2004 contained in References (c) and (d) are truthful. Specifically, the Marines involved in the firefight gave an honest account of their perception of Sgt. Peralta’s actions,” the colonel wrote in his report. “They were not pressured to exaggerate his valor in the hope that Sgt. Peralta would ultimately be awarded the Medal of Honor.”
The new allegations are shocking and sobering, and deserve to be weighed carefully. But they do have their detractors.
One Marine who was in the room where Peralta died said he was appalled at the new accounts raised in the Post report.
“I was within arms’ reach of Peralta when Peralta put the grenade under his body,” said Robert Reynolds of Ritsville, Wash., then a lance corporal who was wounded in the arm during the firefight. “If he hadn’t done that, I would have been dead. Facts don’t lie.”
Diagrams illustrating the positions of each member of the house-clearing group show that Gonzales was outside of the house at the time of Peralta’s death. Brown ran out of the house when the grenade was thrown. But Allen was in the house at the time, and Reynolds said he had no explanation for his shocking new account. But, Reynolds said, he knew that no one had interfered with his testimony of events.
“I was in the field hospital when a major came to me, we asked to talk,” he said. “I sat down and talked to him and then he asked if I would be willing to write a statement about what I just said. I wrote down about what we had talked about. That was the end of it. I never talked to anyone from my unit about the whole case.”
Reynolds says he lives with the physical evidence of Peralta’s heroism every day.
“Knowing that the grenades have a five-meter killing radius, I would have been dead,” he said. “I would be dead. I have no shrapnel wounds from that grenade at all.”
Another account of events that does not appear in the Post report is that of Steve Sebby, a combat cameraman who was also on the house-clearing mission. Although Sebby did not have a line of sight on Peralta when the grenade was thrown, his footage of Peralta’s body being carried out of the house would become evidence in Peralta’s medal package. In a Feb. 20 email reviewed by Marine Corps Times, Sebby said he could say with “absolute certainty” that no one in the platoon was forced to write anything about the events surrounding Peralta’s death; they were instructed to “write what you saw.”
“We were still adrenaline filled,” he wrote. “There would have been no time to organize a false testimony amongst that many Marines.”
The fog of war element is also integral to the telling of this story. As Londono notes, a report by combat correspondent Travis Kaemmerer contains details about Peralta being shot in the face by insurgents at “point blank range” that the ballistic evidence and later command investigation did not bear out. In his email, Sebby also described the confusion and chaos that surrounded Peralta’s last moments.
“That scene is a lot of yelling between the Marines who weren’t in the room, trying to get a handle on the situation, and Marines who were in the room, yelling back: “I don’t know man! I saw shots fired, this guy went down. Grenade! He’s Dead! Don’t say that! What the F***!!!?” he wrote.
At the end of the day, the new claims raise questions that can’t be ignored, but give few definitive answers. Frustratingly, with Hagel’s decision, exactly what happened in that house-clearing mission may never be authoritatively confirmed.