Military rejects medal appeal for war hero


POSTED: Thursday, November 20, 2008

SAN DIEGO » The Department of Defense reaffirmed its decision yesterday not to award the Medal of Honor to a Hawaii-based Marine who witnesses say threw himself on a grenade to save his colleagues in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004.

Rep. Duncan Hunter and other politicians appealed to instead award Sgt. Rafael Peralta of San Diego the Navy Cross, the second-highest medal the Navy can bestow for valor.

Peralta's nomination was tainted by reports he was wounded by friendly fire shortly before an insurgent lobbed the grenade, but eyewitnesses described how the mortally wounded Marine deliberately grabbed the grenade and pulled it to his chest to protect fellow troops from the blast.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said five independent experts—three medical doctors, a general and a Medal of Honor recipient—reviewed the forensic evidence and unanimously found it did not meet the required standard, because they could not be sure he acted deliberately.

California's senators and five San Diego area representatives wrote to President Bush, asking him to reconsider the decision and recognize Peral- ta's sacrifice to his comrades and his country.

“;Intentionally absorbing a grenade blast to protect one's comrades in arms has been traditionally recognized by awarding the Medal of Honor,”; they wrote.

In September, Hawaii's congressional delegation asked Bush to consider posthumously awarding the Medal of Honor to Peralta, noting several fellow Marines verified Peralta acted intentionally.

“;Clearly, Sergeant Peralta made a deliberate decision to absorb the grenade blast in order to protect the lives of the Marines fighting directly by his side,”; their letter said.

The family is disappointed but not surprised, because they believe the officials do not want to admit they made a mistake, said George Sagba, an attorney for Peralta's family.

Sagba noted the experts did not rule out the possibility that Peralta, who had been shot in the head and upper body during a house-to-house search, could have intentionally reached for the grenade.

Sagba said he is pursuing home video shot by Peralta's colleagues on the day he died.

“;This video can show exactly who was there, the blast fragments, all that stuff,”; he said.

Sagba said the family intends to appeal after President-elect Barack Obama appoints a new defense secretary.

Peralta, who was assigned to Kaneohe's 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, moved to San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico, as a teenager. He was 25.