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Rep. Hunter again seeks Medal of Honor for Sgt. Rafael Peralta

By Hieu Tran Phan | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: January 18, 2016

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — A local member of Congress is again pushing for the late Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta of San Diego to be recognized with the Medal of Honor, timing his new request to a broader military review of whether recipients of certain combat-valor medals should have their awards upgraded.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, on Thursday wrote to the current commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller, asking that he submit a new nomination for Peralta to get the nation’s highest distinction for combat bravery. Hunter has been a major voice in the protracted controversy over whether Peralta’s wartime actions in Iraq have been undervalued.

“It is my hope that the Marine Corps will continue to support Peralta” for higher recognition, Hunter wrote in his letter. Neller’s office said its policy is to not publicly discuss such correspondence.

Last June, Peralta’s family accepted the Navy Cross — the second-highest medal — on his behalf after having refused to do so for years. On Saturday, his younger brother, Rick Peralta, said the family had no comment “on this extremely difficult situation.”

The elder Peralta, a 1997 graduate of Morse High School in San Diego, was an infantry rifleman with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.

On Nov. 15, 2004, the Marines were clearing houses of enemy fighters in Fallujah, Iraq. After breachers kicked in the door to a building, Peralta and his squad walked into a back room and encountered “intense, close-range automatic weapons fire from multiple insurgents,” according to his Navy Cross citation.

As the Marines returned fire, Peralta fell to the ground mortally wounded from a gunshot to the head. The insurgents threw an enemy fragmentation grenade as they fled. When it landed by Peralta, he “reached out and pulled the grenade to this body, absorbing the brunt of the blast,” the citation said.

Peralta, 25, immediately succumbed to his wounds.

The Marine Corps and Navy Department recommended the Medal of Honor based on several eyewitness accounts by fellow Marines, the traditional standard of proof.

However, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided against it after an unprecedented review panel of forensic and medical experts determined that Peralta was probably too gravely wounded to have acted consciously.

The Navy Department, citing its own investigations and medical opinions, authorized the Navy Cross in 2008, the highest medal the Navy can give without Pentagon approval. It also chose to name a destroyer warship after Peralta.

Two more defense secretaries after Gates have rejected appeals by members of Congress to give Peralta the Medal of Honor.

The controversy was stirred again in 2014 when a Marine who was in the room with Peralta when he died (but hadn’t seen the grenade explode, according to the account he gave the Marine Corps) and two other Marines who were nearby told The Washington Post they lied about what happened. They made up a heroic story because they felt guilty that Peralta was shot in the face by a ricochet of “friendly fire” from fellow Marines, not insurgents, they said.

Other Marines, including witnesses to Peralta’s actions, have strongly denied that account.

Last week, Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said while it might be unusual for a military-medal case to garner a lot of high-profile, sustained attention for years, there have been other cases where it has taken decades for an upgrade to the Medal of Honor.

“The problem in this case is that politics has overridden everything else. For some reason, somebody with the Defense Department, not the Marine Corps and not the Navy, has been committed to seeing that this award does not happen,” Kasper asserted. “But the great thing is, Peralta’s legacy will outlive them all and his time will eventually come. It’s just a matter of when.”

This month, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford told the DoDLive blog that he believes Peralta’s heroism merits the Medal of Honor.

“I was with the division when he was recommended, and I reviewed that case, and I sat on the board, and I thought that particular case was certainly in the same category as others who received the Medal of Honor,” said Dunford, who was formerly the Marine commandant and now serves as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In the same interview, he talked about Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s recent request for the Pentagon to review all recommendations made since Sept. 11, 2001 for service cross awards – including the Navy Cross – and the Silver Star. The stated goal is to see whether the military has been using consistent set of standards in evaluating such nominations.

©2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., has asked Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller to submit a new nomination for the late Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta to receive the Medal of Honor.
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