Marine killed in fierce Iraq fight awarded Navy Cross

The fam­ily ac­cepts on be­half of Rafael Per­alta af­ter a long dis­pute over the Medal of Honor.

Los Angeles Times - - THE STATE - By Tony Perry tony.perry@la­times.com Twit­ter: @LATsandiego

CAMP PENDLE­TON — In a cer­e­mony redo­lent of sad­ness mixed with pride, the fam­ily of Marine Sgt. Rafael Per­alta ac­cepted the Navy Cross that was posthu­mously awarded to him for his brav­ery in Fal­louja, Iraq, in 2004.

Per­alta’s mother, Rosa, dabbed at her tears as she ac­cepted the medal Mon­day from Navy Sec­re­tary Ray Mabus, who praised her son as the def­i­ni­tion of a pa­tri­otic Marine. His dy­ing act, Mabus said, was to save the lives of his fel­low Marines by smoth­er­ing an en­emy grenade dur­ing a fu­ri­ous, clo­sein fire­fight.

“Thank you to the fam­ily of this Amer­i­can hero,” Mabus said.

Mabus made no men­tion of the nearly decade-long con­tro­versy about what level of honor Per­alta de­served.

The con­tro­versy cen­tered on whether Per­alta al­ready was clin­i­cally dead when the grenade landed, as pathol­o­gists con­cluded, or whether he was dy­ing but con­scious enough to scoop up the grenade, as Marines who were with him in­sist.

At first, Per­alta, who died at 25, was cleared for the Medal of Honor, the na­tion’s high­est medal for com­bat brav­ery. But af­ter a protest from in­side the Depart­ment of De­fense bu­reau­cracy, the sec­re­tary of De­fense re- scinded his de­ci­sion and or­dered a task force to re­view the case. The task force agreed with the pathol­o­gists, not the Marines.

For years, the fam­ily de­clined to ac­cept the Navy Cross out of their be­lief that Rafael de­served the Medal of Honor. But fam­ily mem­bers grew weary of the con­tro­versy and re­luc­tantly reversed their de­ci­sion.

Per­alta’s brother, Ri­cardo, who en­listed in the Marines to honor his brother, told the sev­eral hun­dred Marines and guests at the award cer­e­mony that his brother “is missed but not forgotten.” His story is told to boot camp re­cruits. A Navy de­stroyer un­der con­struc­tion has been named for him.

Rafael went to Iraq as his brother, Ri­cardo Per­alta said, “and he re­turned as a leg­end.”

Staff Sgt. Adam Mor­ri­son said af­ter the cer­e­mony that he re­mains con­vinced that Per­alta, while dy­ing, reached out to smother a grenade.

“Be­cause of Rafael Per­alta, I’m here to­day,” said Mor­ri­son, 30, who was wounded in the ex­plo­sion of the grenade that Per­alta was smoth­er­ing. “Be­cause of Rafael Per­alta, my fa­ther is now the grand­fa­ther to three boys.”

The Navy Cross is based on the tes­ti­mony of Mor­ri­son and four other Marines who were with Per­alta.

The Marines had burst into a home where in­sur­gents were heav­ily bar­ri­caded and wait­ing. Per­alta, tak­ing the lead, was im­me­di­ately shot. The in­sur­gents hurled a grenade that landed near where Per­alta lay dy­ing.

“The grenade came to rest near Sgt. Per­alta’s head,” ac­cord­ing to the ci­ta­tion. “With­out hes­i­ta­tion and with com­plete dis­re­gard for his own safety, Sgt. Per­alta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, ab­sorb­ing the brunt of the blast and shield­ing fel­low Marines only feet away.”

The Marine Corps, which is fa­mously stingy in award­ing medals to its com­bat troops, ini­tially nom­i­nated Per­alta, a Mex­i­can im­mi­grant who en­listed on the day he re­ceived his green card, for the Medal of Honor.

The Depart­ment of De­fense, re­view­ing the nom­i­na­tion, in­clud­ing med­i­cal ev­i­dence, ini­tially rec­om­mended the award. Thensec­re­tary of De­fense Robert Gates agreed.

But then an in­ves­ti­ga­tor for the Depart­ment of De­fense in­spec­tor gen­eral protested that the nom­i­na­tion seemed based on the de­bat­able con­clu­sion that Per­alta was still alive when the grenade landed near his body.

In a rare, if not un­prece­dented, move, Gates re­scinded his de­ci­sion in 2008 af­ter form­ing a task force, in­clud­ing pathol­o­gists and re­tired of­fi­cers, to re­view the case. The pathol­o­gists de­cided that Per­alta was prob­a­bly clin­i­cally dead and that any ac­tions were in­vol­un­tary. The task force con­cluded that, given the dis­puted med­i­cal ev­i­dence, the Medal of Honor was not war­ranted. The Navy Cross, with a lesser bur­den of ev­i­dence, was rec­om­mended in­stead.

The de­ci­sion in­fu­ri­ated the Marines and emo­tion­ally dev­as­tated the Per­alta fam­ily. Rep. Dun­can Hunter (R-Alpine) tried un­suc­cess­fully to get Gates’ two suc­ces­sors to over­turn the rul­ing. He says he may try again with cur­rent Sec­re­tary of De­fense Ash­ton Carter “when the time is right.”

Don Bartletti Los An­ge­les Times

ROSA PER­ALTA ac­cepts award from Navy Sec­re­tary Ray Mabus. Her son Rafael was cred­ited with sav­ing fel­low Marines by shield­ing them from a grenade.

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