Ann Scott Tyson / Washington Post – 2008-09-20 22:01:21
Sergeant Took Grenade’s Blast in Fallujah,
Was Lauded by Bush
WASHINGTON (September 19, 2008) — According to the Secretary of the Navy, Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta gave his life to save his comrades in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004, grabbing a hostile grenade, pulling it to his body and absorbing the brunt of the blast. President Bush later praised Peralta as a hero.
But a decision by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates not to recommend him for the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor, stirred an outcry yesterday by his family and Marines whose lives he saved.
Peralta instead will be posthumously awarded the second-highest award for valor in combat, the Navy Cross, the military announced Tuesday.
Peralta’s family members said they could not understand the decision, which was delivered to Peralta’s mother, Rosa, by a Marine general on Tuesday.
“She is really disappointed,” Peralta’s sister, Icela, said in a telephone interview from her home in San Diego. She said her mother has no plan to accept the Navy Cross from the military. “At this point, she doesn’t want to receive that medal right now,” she said.
A Marine Corps spokesman said medical evidence was conflicting as to whether he was capable of grabbing the grenade given a head wound he had suffered moments earlier.
Peralta, an immigrant from Mexico City who enlisted in the Marine Corps the day before receiving his green card, was serving with the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment during the U.S. military assault to retake Fallujah in November 2004.
After clearing scores of houses over three days, Peralta, 25, volunteered to join a squad that lacked all its men and stay on duty the night of Nov. 14, allowing his comrades to rest, according to an official military account.
The next day, while clearing another house, Peralta was caught in crossfire between insurgents and Marines, the account said. He was shot in the head and mortally wounded, probably by “friendly fire,” the account stated. As the insurgents fled the building, they threw a fragmentation grenade, which landed near Peralta’s head.
Then, “without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own safety, Peralta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast, and shielding his fellow Marines only feet away,” the account said.
In May 2005, Bush praised Peralta for giving “his life to save his fellow Marines” in the battle of Fallujah.
At least three other service members who died in the Iraq war covering grenades with their bodies in order to save others have received the Medal of Honor posthumously: Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham, who used his body and helmet to cover a grenade when his platoon was ambushed in April 2004; Navy Petty Officer Michael Monsoor, who in September 2006 threw himself on a grenade in Ramadi although he alone could have escaped; and Pvt. 1st Class Ross A. McGinnis, a machine gunner who pinned a grenade tossed into his Humvee in Baghdad in December 2006.
Although the military citation states that Peralta deliberately reached out and absorbed the grenade, medical evidence was unclear as to whether that was possible because of his mortal head wound, said Maj. David Nevers, a Marine Corps spokesman.
“There was conflicting evidence in this case as to whether he could have performed his final act given the nature of his injuries,” Nevers said. “Some believe he did so; others say it is unlikely.”
Given the rigorous and exacting criteria for the Medal of Honor, Nevers said, “there must be no doubt or margin for error.”
Peralta’s family said they suspect the Medal of Honor was not given because an investigation in 2005 found that the bullet fragment in Peralta’s head probably came from friendly fire. The military, however, said the friendly fire finding had “no bearing on the decision to award the Navy Cross,” a decision made by Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter.
“I don’t feel that it’s fair,” Icela Peralta said, adding the family has been inundated by calls from Peralta’s military comrades, including some who were in the house with Peralta.
“They feel they are being treated as liars,” she said, “They are alive thanks to my brother, and all agree he should get the medal.”
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.
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