WASHINGTON – Defense officials have decided once again not to award the Medal of Honor to Sgt. Rafael Peralta, saying too much uncertainty exists to upgrade his combat commendations.
The decision is a devastating blow for friends and family of the fallen Marine, who have lobbied for the honor over the last four years and believed new evidence submitted last spring would finally settle the matter.
But staff of Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who has been pressing Pentagon officials to review the case, said they were informed earlier this week that no change will be made. Peralta was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross – the second highest honor for battlefield valor – over objections from Marines who served alongside him in Iraq who said he deserved the higher honor.
Peralta was killed during a firefight in Fallujah on Nov. 15, 2004. As his team entered a home overtaken by insurgents, Peralta was shot in the head and fell to the ground.
Eyewitness accounts state that before he died, the 25-year-old Marine reached out and pulled an enemy grenade under his body seconds before it detonated. His final sacrifice saved most of his team, those troops insist.
But after he was first nominated for the Medal of Honor, a panel of forensic pathologists reviewing the case found that Peralta could not have consciously grabbed the grenade because of the brain injuries from the gunshot. They also questioned whether the grenade detonated under Peralta’s body, or simply near his corpse.
Hunter and other lawmakers from California asked for a new review earlier this year when new footage of the firefight emerged, showing wounds more consistent with the eyewitness story. Pentagon officials also considered new forensic evidence suggesting that the head wound might not have immediately incapacitated Peralta.
But on Tuesday, Department of Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson informed Hunter’s office and Peralta’s family that the new evidence did not change the 2008 decision.
A formal response from the Pentagon is expected in coming days.
Only four Medals of Honor have been awarded for heroism in Iraq, all of them posthumously. For the Vietnam War, 249 Medals of Honor have been awarded.
The small number of valor commendations presented to troops who served in Iraq or Afghanistan has been a recurring complaint among lawmakers, who worry that military officials have become unnecessarily restrictive in honoring servicemembers’ sacrifices.
But Defense Department officials insist they have not changed any criteria for the awards. Instead, they blame the changing nature of war, noting that advanced technology and tactics have reduced the opportunities for the “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty” mandated in the medal criteria.