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Medal of Honor decision for California Marine might be revealed soon

SAN DIEGO -- Eight years ago this month, Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta of San Diego was killed in Iraq during the battle for Fallujah, the bloodiest house-to-house fighting involving Marines since Vietnam.

A dispute about whether Peralta, 25, a Mexican immigrant, deserves the Medal of Honor remains one of the last pieces of unfinished business from the U.S. involvement in Iraq.

The Marine Corps nominated Peralta for the Medal of Honor. But then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2008 downgraded the award to the Navy Cross _ upsetting the Marines and Peralta's family.

Now, Gates' successor, Leon Panetta, appears on the verge of announcing the result of his review of Gates' decision, based on a video of the aftermath of the house-clearing mission in which Peralta was killed.

Whether Panetta will uphold or reverse Gates' decision is unknown. Medal of Honor decisions are some of the most closely held secrets in the military.

The Marines who were with Peralta that day are unanimous in their view that, although he lay mortally wounded, he reached out and smothered an enemy grenade, saving the lives of several Marines.

But a pathologist report suggested Peralta was already clinically dead from friendly fire and could not have consciously smothered the grenade. For that reason, Gates declined to approve the Medal of Honor nomination.

But Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine officer, believes the newly uncovered film shows Peralta's body did not have the bruising that would be consistent with the pathologist's view of how he died.

Hunter has persisted in pushing Panetta to review his predecessor's decision. Hunter believes Panetta's decision will be announced within weeks.

"The only reasonable course of action, in light of his sacrifice and new evidence, is to award (Peralta) the military's highest award for combat valor," Hunter said Friday.

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