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  • More on Sgt Peralta and the rejected Medal of Honor...

    Honor or insult?

    Marine who smothered grenade deserved MoH, family says, but Defense Secretary Gates disagrees
    By Dan Lamothe - [email protected]
    Posted : September 29, 2008

    When Sgt. Rafael Peralta died smothering an exploding grenade in Fallujah to save his buddies, his place in Marine history was cemented.
    The Corps put him up for the Medal of Honor. The Navy Department approved it and moved it to the Defense Department.
    Just about everyone thought it was a done deal.
    But Peralta instead will receive the prestigious Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for combat valor, the Corps announced Sept. 17. Rather than being cause for celebration, the move angered his family, veterans and other Marines.
    “I don’t want that medal,” said Peralta’s mother, Rosa. “I won’t accept it. It doesn’t seem fair to me.”
    The decision was made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, following a review of Peralta’s records by a retired Multi-National Corps-Iraq commanding general, a Medal of Honor recipient and three medical professionals, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. Gates ordered the review after receiving the Medal of Honor recommendation from the Navy.
    The determination raises questions among Peralta’s friends, family and fellow Marines, as questions about the circumstances of his death continue to swirl:
    Did politics play a role in the decision?
    Could Peralta have knowingly reached for the grenade after sustaining a mortal gunshot wound to the head?
    And, most importantly, if dying while covering a grenade to shield your buddies doesn’t rate the Medal of Honor, what does?
    One last firefight

    By all accounts, Peralta was proud to be a grunt.
    Assigned to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, he asked to go back to the fight rather than serve as a recruiter, and he frequently volunteered to go on combat patrols, fellow Marines said.
    On Nov. 15, 2004, Peralta and his rifle squad barged into a house during the second battle of Fallujah and found themselves facing a hail of bullets, Marine officials said.
    Peralta, then 25, was shot in the head during the initial exchange of gunfire, but he had the presence of mind to grab a grenade tossed near him on the floor and absorb the blast with his body, shielding squad members who were only feet away, Marine officials said.
    “He was a great warrior, great leader, and was respected by all who knew him,” said Sgt. Maj. Carlton Kent, the Corps’ top enlisted Marine. “Marines are taught that mission accomplishment and troop welfare are top priorities. His fellow Marines were able to carry on with their mission and accomplish it because his last measure was to ensure their welfare.”
    Some questions about the firefight were raised during the investigation of Peralta’s death, however, according to military documents.
    A summary of the Marine investigation into Peralta’s death, dated Nov. 17, 2005, said a corporal who arrived shortly after Peralta’s death believed another sergeant involved in the firefight “pressured some of the Marines to say that Sgt. Peralta jumped on the grenade.”
    The sergeant — who had been promoted to staff sergeant when the investigation was released — denied the accusation, the summary said. A lance corporal and another corporal involved also rejected the notion.
    The cause of Peralta’s death is listed as “a penetrating gunshot wound to the head” and “ballistic injuries of the head from a grenade explosion,” according to the summary. Overall, it backs the statements of other Marines involved in the firefight and suggests Peralta was hit by a bullet that ricocheted.
    “The Marines involved in the firefight gave an honest account of their perception of Sgt. Peralta’s actions,” the summary said. “They were not pressured to exaggerate his valor in the hope that Sgt. Peralta would ultimately be awarded the Medal of Honor.”
    But Col. Eric Berg III, an Army pathologist who autopsied Peralta’s remains, said in a 2005 report that the head wound would have been “nearly instantly fatal. He could not have executed any meaningful motions.”
    One officer familiar with the investigation said much of the research focused on whether the gunshot wound Peralta suffered damaged his brain enough to prevent him from making the decision to grab the grenade.
    “Essentially, the issues come down to whether or not he consciously jumped on the grenade or whether he sort of fell onto it while dying,” the officer said. “There’s such a fine line between the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor.”
    Gates’ decision

    The case to get Peralta a Medal of Honor took an unusual turn after the Navy Department made a positive recommendation to the Defense Department in October 2006.
    After receiving the recommendation, the Pentagon sent it back to the Navy with a request for more information, Whitman said. The Navy Department returned the recommendation to Gates in June 2007, six months after he took office.
    Gates then asked five individuals — including a civilian neurosurgeon and two civilian forensic pathologists — to participate in an additional review of the records because of “contradictory evidence” issued.
    “Each of those individuals had access to all the information, plus detailed medical reports that were not available at the time of the initial review,” Whitman said.
    The five participated in a “very rigorous review” that included interviews with other subject-matter experts, inspecting the evidence and studying a re-creation of the event. In the end, “Each of the individuals independently recommended to the Secretary of Defense that the evidence did not support the award of the Medal of Honor,” Whitman said.
    Contrary to some media reports, the five reviewing the recommendation did not constitute a “panel” and did not make a unified, single recommendation, Whitman said. It was not disclosed whether the individuals discussed the matter together.
    Whitman declined to identify those involved in the review but said the civilian medical professionals were all retired service members. A defense official identified the former commander as retired Army Lt. Gen. John R. Vines.
    Gates made his decision some time in the weeks preceding the Sept. 17 announcement, officials said.
    “Every [medal] recommendation is carefully considered based on the merits of the individual actions, eyewitness accounts, as well as other supporting evidence,” Whitman said. “And the standard for the Medal of Honor is extremely high — and by instruction, ‘There must be no margin of doubt or possibility of error in awarding this honor.’ So it is exacting, and it leaves no margin for doubt or possibility of error in any fashion.”
    Pentagon officials would not elaborate on the evidence the individuals reviewed, or provide a general sense of their conclusions.
    Asked whether the inclusion of the neurosurgeon and forensic pathologists meant the focus was on Peralta’s medical records, Whitman said, “I will leave you to draw your own conclusions based on the type of people that he asked to take a look at this.”
    Asked if that meant the five questioned whether Peralta was in complete control of his mental faculties at the time of his act, Whitman declined to comment.
    Reaction widespread

    Reassurances that Peralta receiving the Navy Cross should be considered an honor have done little to stem the anger of Peralta’s family and Marine comrades.
    The decision is “almost like somebody called me a liar,” said Sgt. Nicholas Jones, 25, who was with Peralta that day.
    Jones, a recruiter, said Peralta’s actions have become part of Marine lore, as drill instructors repeat it to new Marines.
    “His name is definitely synonymous with valor,” said Jones, who was wounded by the grenade blast.
    A former member of 1/3, Robert Reynolds, said he “knows for a fact” that without Peralta’s actions, he would be dead.
    “My honest opinion [of the medal decision]? It’s BS,” said Reynolds, a corrections officer who has three children, including two born after the incident. “I was in that house. I was next to Sergeant Peralta. I saw him, with my own eyes, reach out and pull that damn grenade in.”
    Reserve Lt. Col. Scott Marconda, who investigated the incident in 2004 as a major and judge advocate, said, “there’s no way that grenade got under the center of mass of his body without him putting it there. I’m not a cheerleader. It is what it is. And my point is: I believe that he did that.”
    George Sabga, an attorney who has served as a Peralta family spokesman, said the family fully expected the Medal of Honor nomination would be approved, especially after the Corps’ own internal investigations validated the witnesses’ statements and supported recommendations from senior Marine commanders that Peralta warranted the Medal of Honor.
    “You had three and a half years of investigations, and now you are raising doubt?” Sabga asked.
    Sabga said he believes the friendly fire aspect of the firefight affected the outcome. He also questioned whether Peralta’s immigrant background — he came to the U.S. from Mexico illegally and gained citizenship after joining the Corps — was a factor in the decision.
    “Last year, I got a call from Headquarters Marine Corps,” Sabga said. “They were asking me, ‘What’s the immigration status of Mrs. Peralta and the rest of her family?’ I thought it was kind of weird. Why would they be inquiring about that?”
    Maj. Eric Dent, a Marine spokesman, disputed that immigration status had anything to do with the Corps’ recommendation.
    “We have no way of verifying whether an unidentified person from Headquarters Marine Corps called him a year ago, but the real question is, ‘Why would the Marine Corps ask that question?’ Mrs. Peralta’s immigration status is irrelevant to the award recommendation.”
    Doug Sterner, a Vietnam veteran who maintains a comprehensive database of military combat awards, said it was unprecedented for a defense secretary to call for the additional review by the five individuals and to rely on forensic evidence instead of the testimony of eyewitnesses in combat.
    “Medals of Honor awarded to men who have thrown themselves on grenades reflect perhaps the highest form of courage and sacrifice,” he said. “Whether he consciously made that decision before or during that horrible moment is irrelevant. Ingrained in his character was the willingness to die for his buddies, and that decision was made before he did it.”
    Ramifications reviewed

    On Capitol Hill, members of Congress were reviewing Gates’ decision but were reluctant to say the wrong choice was made.
    Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y., said the Defense Department conducted a review in 2006 and 2007 of its awards procedures and ended up making only modest changes, after complaints were made that the services used different criteria to bestow awards for valor.
    “The first thing I need to say is that we do not want to denigrate the Navy Cross. It is a high honor for a service member and their family and friends.”
    “There is nothing bad about receiving this award,” said McHugh, who said he and other House Armed Services Committee members were briefed about the decision before a public announcement was made.
    “For all of us, it is still a bit of a mystery how these decisions are made,” said McHugh, the ranking Republican member of the House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel. The services continue to have their own standards and procedures, and Congress has done nothing to reduce their flexibility, he said.
    McHugh said he and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, the ranking Republican on the full committee, have asked to see the complete report on Peralta to see what led to the decision that his actions warranted the Navy Cross but not a Medal of Honor.
    A spokesman for Hunter said a letter seeking a review by President Bush has been signed by the entire San Diego-area congressional delegation and by Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
    Spokesman Joe Kasper says the letter urges Bush to award Peralta the Medal of Honor instead of the Navy Cross.
    Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Committee and a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, said he has not looked closely at Peralta’s case, but “I wouldn’t second-guess the secretary [Gates].”
    “I have heard from a lot of people who think they deserved the Medal of Honor. It is always a tough call,” said Murtha, recalling that he spent one year on a panel in Vietnam that made award recommendations for Marines. “We saw a lot of heavy fighting and had a lot of casualties, but we did not recommend anyone for a Medal of Honor.”
    That won’t stop American GI Forum, a veterans civil rights group formed for Hispanic veterans after World War II, from petitioning Congress. George Autobee, the group’s director of government affairs, said they want to make it clear they are disappointed that the Pentagon is not “listening to the Marines who were on-site” with Peralta.
    Autobee, who saw action in Vietnam with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, said Pentagon officials “seem to be a little subjective in some areas, and we were hoping they would be a little more objective in their analysis.”
    He said he hoped Peralta’s immigrant background was not a factor in the decision.
    Commandant Gen. James Conway said Peralta’s actions were heroic and saved the lives of his fellow Marines in Fallujah. But he said “no medal should ever be awarded because of pressure — political or otherwise.”
    “Hundreds of Marines have earned medals for their courage under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Conway said. “Only a few have earned the Navy Cross. Awards for valor are approved through a rigorous process — the intensity of that process is progressively ratcheted up as the seniority of awards increase.”
    Kent — a former I MEF sergeant major, who sat on an initial awards board recommending the Medal of Honor for Peralta — said he was surprised the medal wasn’t approved. But he advised angry Marines that they “must take into account the absolute certainty required” to award the medal.
    “Sergeant Peralta will be remembered for his actions, not the award he did or did not receive,” Kent said. “When we are listening across the parade deck at [Marine Corps Recruit Depot] Parris Island 25 years from now, we’ll hear recruits learning the stories of heroes like Puller, Daly, Kasal and Peralta. The stories will center on these Marines’ character and actions, not which medals they earned or why didn’t they get a certain one.”
    Staff writers Gidget Fuentes, Bryan Mitchell, Bill McMichael and Rick Maze contributed to this report. Also contributing: Gregg Zoroya, USA Today; Willam Cole, The Honolulu Advertiser; The Associated Press.

    ...And shephards we shall be. For thee my lord, for thee. Power hath descended forth from thy hand. That our feet may swiftly carry out thy command. So we shall flow a river forth to thee. And teeming with souls shall it ever be. E Nomini Patri, E Fili, E Spiritu Sancti.

  • #2
    you serve your country . . . lose an arm or leg, maybe your life . . . and you still dont get a "Medal of Honor" . . . thats just crazy

    thats what u get 4 breaking my heart...


    • #3
      Editorial: Selfless Marine earned the Medal of Honor

      Posted : September 29, 2008

      There are few things more selfless than covering a live hand grenade to save your buddies.
      If history has ever offered a virtually automatic path to the Medal of Honor, that’s it.
      At least, it was.
      Since 2001, President Bush has authorized five Medals of Honor for actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In three of those instances, the award went to a soldier, sailor and Marine who sacrificed themselves for their comrades and dove on a grenade.
      Sgt. Rafael Peralta smothered a grenade with his body during a bloody house-clearing operation in Fallujah. Peralta, an infantryman with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, was shot during an intense firefight with insurgents as his unit attempted to clear sections of the city.
      Lying on the floor of that Iraqi house, bleeding from a gunshot wound to the head, Peralta saw an enemy grenade land near his face. The other Marines in the house saw it, too, and watched their wounded teammate offer what remained of his own life in sacrifice for them.
      “Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, Sergeant Peralta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast and shielding fellow Marines only a few feet away,” reads his citation, not for a Medal of Honor, but for a Navy Cross.
      The difference is a matter of perception. In dispute is whether Peralta’s wounds would have prevented him from intentionally committing the act. The Marine Corps — the stingiest of the services when it comes to awards — decisively concluded the action warranted the Medal of Honor. Their investigators say Peralta took the grenade at center mass, and eye-witnesses say he pulled it there on purpose.
      But a few others, unnamed and not present for the heroic act, argue absurdly that the whole thing was reflex, accident or even misinterpreted by the witnesses.
      But if it were an accident, why does Peralta merit the Navy Cross? Why does the citation read as if it were done on purpose?
      Things happen, or they don’t. It can’t be both ways.
      The Defense Department brass took the unprecedented step of seeking outside advice from military and forensic experts to make its determination. Their inconclusive opinions somehow trumped eye-witness accounts, the Corps’ investigation, logic and common sense.
      The Pentagon tried unusually hard to prove that Peralta wasn’t worthy. Perhaps that’s because his head wound may have resulted from friendly fire, the “Pat Tillman Effect.”
      Perhaps it’s because Peralta was born in Mexico and came to this country illegally, joining the Marine Corps the day he received his green card. Only after enlisting did he become a U.S. citizen.
      Or perhaps it’s because we have forgotten that the Medal of Honor, revered though it may be, was created to be given. Out of love. Out of respect. With heavy hearts and enduring gratitude.
      By trying to read the mind of a Marine who died defending freedom, and questioning the recollections and motivations of those who bore witness, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has reduced the prestigious Navy Cross to a mere consolation prize. The Peralta family isn’t even sure they’ll accept it on their Marine’s behalf.
      Could all 3,467 MoHs issued over the past 146 years stand up to similar scrutiny? No.
      This decision was wrong. Gates should reverse course and do what’s right. If he doesn’t, a successor will. Sgt. Rafael Peralta gave his life for his buddies. He earned the Medal of Honor.
      He just hasn’t been awarded it. Yet..................

      ...And shephards we shall be. For thee my lord, for thee. Power hath descended forth from thy hand. That our feet may swiftly carry out thy command. So we shall flow a river forth to thee. And teeming with souls shall it ever be. E Nomini Patri, E Fili, E Spiritu Sancti.


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