Giv­ing honor where honor is over­due

Rafael Per­alta earned the Medal of Honor

The Washington Times Daily - - Metro - By Rep. Dun­can Hunter

For the war in Iraq, four Medals of Honor have been awarded for ex­tra­or­di­nary acts of combat hero­ism. Of those four awards, all of which were post­hu­mous, three were for ac­tion that in­volved smoth­er­ing a gre­nade to save oth­ers — ac­tion con­sis­tently rec­og­nized by the Medal of Honor.

One Ma­rine — Sgt. Rafael Per­alta — was nom­i­nated for the Medal of Honor for the same rea­son, but, un­like those who have been prop­erly rec­og­nized, he was de­nied the na­tion’s high­est award for combat valor by then-sec­re­tary of De­fense Robert M. Gates. It is a decision that rep­re­sents what is wrong with the awards process to­day. It is a decision viewed to be just as much of an in­jus­tice to Sgt. Per­alta as it is a dis­ser­vice to the men and women of the Ma­rine Corps and their con­tri­bu­tion and sac­ri­fice dur­ing nearly a decade in Iraq.

Fight­ing in Fal­lu­jah in 2004, Sgt. Per­alta and sev­eral of his fel­low Marines en­tered a room and made im­me­di­ate con­tact with the en­emy. A fire­fight erupted, and Sgt. Per­alta was hit in the back of the head with a frag­ment from a ric­o­cheted bul­let. On the floor and with a live en­emy gre­nade within reach, he pulled the gre­nade to his body, ab­sorb­ing the blast and sav­ing his fel­low Marines at the cost of his own life.

Seven Marines tes­ti­fied to Sgt. Per­alta’s ac­tions. Those wit­ness ac­counts were cor­rob­o­rated by med­i­cal ev­i­dence and thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion, leav­ing no doubt that Sgt. Per­alta know­ingly reached for the gre­nade. The Ma­rine Corps, un­der­stand­ing the courage and per­sonal sac­ri­fice in­volved, nom­i­nated him for the Medal of Honor. Soon af­ter, then-sec­re­tary of the Navy Don­ald C. Win­ter re­viewed the nom­i­na­tion and gave it his stamp of ap­proval.

None of this was good enough for Mr. Gates.

What hap­pened next was un­prece­dented. For the first time, Mr. Gates as­sem­bled a re­view panel — con­sist­ing of two pathol­o­gists, among oth­ers — who came to the con­clu­sion that Sgt. Per­alta’s head wound would have pre­vented him from con­sciously per­form­ing the ac­tion seven wit­nesses, med­i­cal and in­ves­ti­ga­tory ev­i­dence and the Ma­rine Corps com­mand all say he did. The Gates panel also de­ter­mined that the gre­nade det­o­nated one to three feet from his left knee in­stead of un­der­neath him, even though a piece of the gre­nade fuse was re­cov­ered from the flak jacket, cen­ter mass.

Point­ing to the panel’s find­ings, Mr. Gates down­graded Sgt. Per­alta’s Medal of Honor to the Navy Cross — the Navy and Ma­rine Corps’ sec­ond-high­est award for valor. The Per­alta fam­ily was no­ti­fied of the decision, and there have been mul­ti­ple at­tempts since then to present the fam­ily with the Navy Cross, which the fam­ily still re­fuses to ac­cept.

The Navy Cross ci­ta­tion even reads like a Medal of Honor ci­ta­tion, stat­ing: “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 his fel­low Marines only feet away.” That is an in­dis­putable state­ment val­i­dat­ing that Sgt. Per­alta did ex­actly what Mr. Gates says he didn’t do.

For what­ever rea­son, Mr. Gates’ panel man­u­fac­tured enough doubt to deny Sgt. Per­alta the proper recog­ni­tion. Up to that point, there was con­sen­sus that Sgt. Per­alta should re­ceive the Medal of Honor — an opin­ion that is still preva­lent nearly eight years af­ter the fact.

Thank­fully, there’s now in­for­ma­tion pre­vi­ously un­avail­able to in­ves­ti­ga­tors that in­val­i­dates Mr. Gates’ con­clu­sion, clear­ing the way for Sgt. Per­alta fi­nally to get the award he should have re­ceived years ago.

The first piece of ev­i­dence is a new re­port from renowned foren­sic pathol­o­gist Dr. Vin­cent Di Maio, who re­viewed ma­te­ri­als in re­gard to Sgt. Per­alta’s death, in­clud­ing wit­ness state­ments, the con­di­tion of the body ar­mor, au­topsy find­ings and his own ex­pe­ri­ence with head wounds. His de­ter­mi­na­tion: Sgt. Per­alta “was not im­me­di­ately in­ca­pac­i­tated by the brain in­jury and in fact reached for the gre­nade and pulled it un­der his body.”

The sec­ond piece of ev­i­dence is a video taken by a combat film crew. The video shows Marines at­tend­ing to Sgt. Per­alta af­ter the gre­nade det­o­nated. He is face­down, with in­jury to the lower ab­domen. The Gates panel claimed there was no ev­i­dence that the gre­nade det­o­nated un­der­neath him, but rather as­serted the gre­nade ex­ploded one to three feet from his left knee. The video shows no sign of in­jury to his left leg or knee. His trousers are in­tact, and no blood is vis­i­ble on the back or left side of the leg.

Be­tween the video and the pathol­ogy re­port, it is ev­i­dent just how wrong the Gates panel was in reach­ing its decision. The bur­den for cor­rect­ing this mis­take should not fall to the Ma­rine Corps or the Navy, but rather the sec­re­tary of de­fense, who is in a po­si­tion to ad­dress this sit­u­a­tion once and for all.

In re­al­ity, all it should take for the Ma­rine Corps and the Navy is to re­sub­mit Sgt. Per­alta’s Medal of Honor nom­i­na­tion. That should be enough. A new sec­re­tary of de­fense means new pos­si­bil­ity for Sgt. Per­alta and the Ma­rine Corps.

Re­gard­less, there’s new in­for­ma­tion avail­able, enough to re­open the case, and there’s also a for­mal re­quest to the sec­re­tary of the Navy to re­sub­mit the nom­i­na­tion from a bi­par­ti­san del­e­ga­tion of House and Se­nate law­mak­ers. It is im­por­tant that the Ma­rine Corps knows it has the sec­re­tary of the Navy’s sup­port. Rep­re­sent­ing one of his own, a Ma­rine, the sec­re­tary of the Navy should re­sub­mit the nom­i­na­tion as soon as pos­si­ble to the sec­re­tary of de­fense.

Re­cently, at the sug­ges­tion of Congress, the Navy an­nounced it will name a de­stroyer af­ter Sgt. Per­alta — a fit­ting honor that will carry his legacy around the world. He will be join­ing an elite class of Amer­i­can he­roes in the de­stroyer class, in­clud­ing Cpl. Ja­son L. Dun­ham, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for smoth­er­ing a gre­nade in Iraq.

Award­ing Sgt. Per­alta the Medal of Honor would go a long way to­ward restor­ing in­tegrity to the awards process. More im­por­tant, it would en­sure Sgt. Per­alta is rightly rec­og­nized for his sac­ri­fice.

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