No medal upgrade for Marine who will receive Navy Cross in June

Sgt. Rafael Peralta


By JENNIFER HLAD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 21, 2015

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — The family of Sgt. Rafael Peralta will receive the Navy Cross next month for his actions in Iraq, bringing to an end — for now — a decade-long fight to see him awarded the Medal of Honor.

Marines who were with Peralta on Nov. 15, 2004, in Fallujah, said he was shot in the head and fell to the ground, then pulled a grenade under his body to protect the rest of his squad.

Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski, who at the time was commander of 1st Marine Division, recommended Peralta for the Medal of Honor.

However, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy said that Peralta wouldn’t have been able to consciously grab and move the grenade toward his body, because a gunshot wound he received first would have killed him almost instantly.

Still, Natonski’s recommendation moved on, and then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates initially approved it. In his memoir, Gates writes that he was later told he needed to reconsider.

Gates ordered a special panel to look into the incident, and the panel concluded that Peralta would not have been able to consciously move the grenade. Peralta was approved for the Navy Cross — with a citation that says when a grenade was thrown near his head, he “reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast and shielding fellow Marines only feet away.”

For years, Peralta’s friends and family have lobbied to change the award to the Medal of Honor, and in 2012, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter and other California lawmakers asked for another review after new footage of the firefight became available. Then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta declined to upgrade the award, saying there can be no margin of doubt when awarding a Medal of Honor.

Naming the ship was a way to “remember that kind of heroism,” he said at the ceremony.

In 2014, Hunter asked then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel for another review of the evidence. Hagel also declined to upgrade the award.

The fight may continue after the Navy Cross is awarded; Hunter seems determined to continue pushing for an upgrade, and the president and secretary of defense still have the power to make the change in the future.

Twitter: @jhlad

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