A Marine sergeant singled out by President Bush for throwing his body on a grenade to save his comrades in Iraq will receive the prestigious Navy Cross rather than the Medal of Honor, military officials said Wednesday.
The family of Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was posthumously nominated for the nation’s highest military honor, told the North County Times of Escondido, Calif., they were disappointed he was not receiving the Medal of Honor.
"I don’t understand why if the president has been talking about him," his mother, Rosa Peralta, told the newspaper, which was the first to report the bestowing of the Navy Cross.
Rosa Peralta said she was informed during a meeting with Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski that a committee could not agree on awarding the Medal of Honor to her son, who Marine Corps officials say was first wounded by friendly fire.
The Navy Cross is the second highest honor for combat heroism a Marine can receive.
Peralta, assigned to Hawaii’s 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, was attached to the Okinawa, Japan-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit.
On Nov. 15, 2004, the Marines were doing house-to-house searches, looking for insurgents, in Fallujah, Iraq.
According to a Marine Corps news release, an investigation was directed in 2005 by then-Maj. Gen. Richard F. Natonski, commanding general of the 1st Marine Division, "to determine the source of a bullet fragment recovered from the body of Peralta.
"Following multiple and exhaustive reviews, the evidence supports the finding that Peralta was likely hit by ‘friendly fire.’
"This finding had no bearing on the decision to award the Navy Cross medal," according to the news release.
Last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked five experts to review Peralta’s actions, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman.
Whitman would not name the experts, but Stars and Stripes has learned that one of them was retired Lt. Gen. John Vines, the former No. 2 commander in Iraq.
The other members were a Medal of Honor recipient, a civilian neurosurgeon and two forensic pathologists, Whitman said.
"Each of those individuals had access to all the information plus detailed medical reports that were not available at the time of the initial review," Whitman said.
Each of the five experts individually told Gates that the evidence did not support awarding Peralta the Medal of Honor, Whitman said.
Whitman declined to elaborate on how the experts reached their conclusions other than to say they reviewed the evidence, talked to subject matter experts and re-created the event.
After reviewing all of the information available, Gates decided Peralta’s actions "did not meet the exacting standards" for the Medal of Honor, Whitman said.
"He did not come to this decision lightly," Whitman said.
Rosa Peralta told The Associated Press that the general mentioned the friendly-fire aspect as part of her son’s death during the discussion.
The Marine Corps assembled extensive material supporting its Medal of Honor request, including witness statements, ballistic and forensic evidence and several medical opinions, according to a report in Thursday’s USA Today.
According to that investigation, Marines scrambling for cover after an insurgent threw a grenade toward them plainly saw Peralta reach with his arm to "scoop" the grenade under his body.
Marine journalist Lance Cpl. T. J. Kaemmerer wrote a first-person account of the fight. His camera batteries dead, Kaemmerer accompanied the other Marines on a house-clearing mission.
He wrote of witnessing Peralta, 25, get shot in the face and torso as he entered a room, though those wounds were not borne out in the autopsy, a Marine official told Stars and Stripes on Thursday. Then, he wrote:
"I saw four Marines firing from the adjoining room when a yellow, foreign-made, oval-shaped grenade bounced into the room, rolling to a stop close to Peralta’s nearly lifeless body.
"… Peralta — in his last fleeting moments of consciousness — reached out and pulled the grenade into his body."
George Sabga, a San Diego lawyer who has been acting as an intermediary for the family, told the North County Times he was extremely disappointed by the decision.
"It was approved by the Department of the Navy and the Marine Corps and Central Command," Sabga said.
"The only ones that had a problem with it was the Department of Defense and I think that was because he was shot by another Marine."
Headquarters Marine Corps spokesman Maj. David Nevers said only 23 sailors and Marines who have served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan have received the Navy Cross.
Peralta moved to San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico, as a teenager. He was 25.
Three Medals of Honor have been awarded posthumously in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for soldiers or Marines diving on a grenade to save their unitmates:
- Army Pfc. Ross McGinnis jumped on a grenade thrown into his Humvee in Baghdad, saving three other soldiers
- Navy SEAL Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor covered a grenade that had struck him in the chest at Ar Ramadi, Iraq, saving the lives of two SEAL teammates.
- n Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham dove on a grenade to shield his troops during an ambush in Anbar province, Iraq.