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