Thursday, September 18, 2008

Some upset Marine sergeant won't receive Medal of Honor

WASHINGTON — A rare decision by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to reject a Marine Corps recommendation that one of its heroes receive the Medal of Honor has angered Marines who say Sgt. Rafael Peralta sacrificed his life to save theirs.

Peralta's family was notified of the decision Wednesday by Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski, a top Marine Corps commander. Col. David Lapan, a Marine spokesman, said he was unaware of any recent award nomination that was denied in this way.

A Gates-appointed panel unanimously concluded that the report on Peralta's action did not meet the standard of "no margin of doubt or possibility of error," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. The argument about whether to award Peralta the nation's highest military honor centers on whether a mortally wounded Marine could have intentionally reached for the grenade after suffering a serious head wound.

For his actions during a Nov. 15, 2004, firefight in Fallujah, Iraq, Peralta will receive the Navy Cross, the service's second-highest award for valor. The citation said Peralta, 25, covered a live grenade thrown by insurgents.

"I don't want that medal," Peralta's mother, Rosa, said Wednesday. "I won't accept it. It doesn't seem fair to me."

The decision is "almost like somebody called me a liar," said Marine Sgt. Nicholas Jones, 25, who was with Peralta that day. Jones, a recruiter, said Peralta's actions have become part of Marine Corps lore, as drill sergeants and officer-candidate instructors repeat it to new Marines. "His name is definitely synonymous with valor," said Jones, who was wounded by the grenade blast.

"I know for a fact that I would have been killed … and that my daughter, Sophia, our new baby, Sienna, would not be here or coming into the world. And that my son, Noah, would have grown up without knowing his dad," said Robert Reynolds, 31, a corrections officer and former Marine who was with Peralta that day.

In a Marine Corps investigation of the attack, Natonski said, "I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt" that the gravely wounded Peralta covered the grenade.

Natonski, commander of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., appeared disappointed by the news he brought the family, said David Donald, Rosa Peralta's son-in-law. "He felt like Rafael deserved the Medal of Honor," Donald said.

Peralta's heroism has become Marine Corps legend, Lapan says. He said those closest to Peralta are likely to be upset by the decision, while others will see the Navy Cross award — given to only 17 other Marines in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts — as quite an honor.

Peralta had been shot in the head before he covered the grenade, a Marine investigation said. The report concluded he was hit by a ricochet that likely came from the gun of another Marine while they were clearing insurgents from a local home.

After he was wounded, the report said, Peralta scooped an insurgent grenade under his body, absorbed the blast and died, according to five of the Marines who were with Peralta during the firefight.

Gates appointed a five-member panel led by retired Lt. Gen. John Vines, the former commander of multi-national forces in Iraq, to reinvestigate reports of the battle. The panel also included a Medal of Honor recipient, a retired military neurosurgeon and two civilian forensic pathologists, Whitman said. He declined to provide their names.

After the panel made its recommendation, Gates made his decision last week, Whitman said. He declined to provide any explanation other than the facts did not meet the standard for a Medal of Honor.

Five men have been awarded the Medal of Honor for service in Iraq, one for service in Afghanistan. All were posthumous.

Peralta first came to the United States from Mexico without legal documentation as a teen and joined the Marines the day he got his green card on April 17, 2000. He later became a naturalized citizen.

The Marine Corps assembled extensive material supporting its Medal of Honor request, including witness statements, ballistic and forensic evidence and several medical opinions.

According to that investigation, Marines scrambling for cover after an insurgent threw a grenade toward them plainly saw Peralta reach with his arm to "scoop" the grenade under his body.

Scorch marks were later found on his flak jacket, along with embedded pieces of shrapnel and a part of the grenade fuse, the reports show. "There's no way that grenade got under the center of mass of his body without him putting it there," said Reserve Marine Lt. Col. Scott Marconda, who investigated the incident in 2004 as a major and judge advocate. "I'm not a cheerleader. It is what it is. And my point is: I believe that he did that."

The Marine investigation highlighted a key area of controversy: whether the gunshot wound to the back of Peralta's head from a ricochet left him unable to function.

Col. Eric Berg, an Army pathologist who autopsied Peralta's remains, said in the 2005 report that the head wound would have been "nearly instantly fatal. He could not have executed any meaningful motions."

Berg said Monday that he stands by his conclusions. Four other experts — Peralta's battalion surgeon, and two neurosurgeons and a neurologist who examined the autopsy reports — said Peralta could have knowingly reached for the grenade. They say the ricochet was traveling at a "low velocity" and would not have immediately killed him.

Regardless, Jones said, Peralta is still a hero. Not receiving the Medal of Honor "won't change what he did out there."

Contributing: Alan Gomez

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