Hon­or­ing a Ma­rine hero

Re­view board should ap­prove Medal of Honor for Sgt. Per­alta

The Washington Times Daily - - Opinion -

US. Ma­rine Corps Sgt. Rafael Per­alta was a hero who was de­nied full recog­ni­tion for his acts of valor. This in­jus­tice should be reversed.

Sgt. Per­alta was in the thick of the fight dur­ing the bloody Sec­ond Bat­tle of Fal­lu­jah in Novem­ber 2004. While clear­ing a house, his unit came un­der close-quar­ters fire from in­sur­gents, and Sgt. Per­alta was felled by a round to the back of his head. While he was ly­ing wounded, a gre­nade thrown by flee­ing in­sur­gents landed near him. “With­out hes­i­ta­tion and with com­plete dis­re­gard for his own per­sonal safety,” an of­fi­cial ac­count reads, “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 gre­nade blast ended the Ma­rine’s life.

For his self-sac­ri­fice, Sgt. Per­alta was rec­om­mended for the Medal of Honor. Seven eye­wit­nesses at­tested to the events, though just two were re­quired. The Ma­rine Corps chain of com­mand signed off on the award, and then-sec­re­tary of the Navy Don­ald C. Win­ter ap­proved the nom­i­na­tion. But when it ar­rived on the desk of then-sec­re­tary of De­fense Robert M. Gates, the process stalled. For rea­sons never fully ex­plained, Mr. Gates con­vened an un­prece­dented re­view board to go back over the facts. The board de­ter­mined that Sgt. Per­alta’s ini­tial wound was so se­vere that he could not have know­ingly pulled the gre­nade un­der him and that the gre­nade in fact det­o­nated near his left knee. This find­ing, com­ing years later, con­tra­dicted eye­wit­ness ac­counts and was at odds with phys­i­cal ev­i­dence. With the Medal of Honor blocked, Sgt. Per­alta was awarded the Navy Cross — yet the award ci­ta­tion re­cited the facts as orig­i­nally de­scribed.

Ef­forts by for­mer Rep. Dun­can Hunter, Cal­i­for­nia Re­pub­li­can, to have Mr. Gates re­con­sider the decision were un­suc­cess­ful. His son and suc­ces­sor in Congress, Rep. Dun­can D. Hunter, a Ma­rine veteran who also fought at Fal­lu­jah, stayed on the case. He in­tro­duced lan­guage in the Na­tional De­fense Au­tho­riza­tion Act to name a ship af­ter Sgt. Per­alta, and last month, the Navy an­nounced that a new Ar­leigh Burke-class de­stroyer would bear his name.

Mean­while, new ev­i­dence backs up the orig­i­nal story and un­der­cuts the find­ings of the Gates re­view board. Foren­sic pathol­o­gist Dr. Vin­cent Di Maio found that Sgt. Per­alta’s head wound wasn’t se­vere enough to pre­vent him from con­sciously pulling the gre­nade to­ward his body. Graphic videos taken at the scene by Ma­rine combat cam­era­men show Sgt. Per­alta with bloody wounds to the ab­domen but no sign of blood on the back or left side of his leg, as claimed in the Gates re­port.

The Navy awards board is re­view­ing the case in light of the new ev­i­dence. Navy Sec­re­tary Ray Mabus and De­fense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panetta have an op­por­tu­nity to right a sense­less wrong. The pre­pon­der­ance of ev­i­dence in­di­cates that Sgt. Per­alta did what those who were present at the scene said he did: know­ingly and will­ingly sac­ri­fice his life to save fel­low Marines. He up­held the high­est tra­di­tions of the Ma­rine Corps and the U.S. naval ser­vice. Be­fore leav­ing for Fal­lu­jah, Sgt. Per­alta wrote to his 14-year-old brother, “Be proud of me, bro . . . and be proud of be­ing an Amer­i­can.” A grate­ful na­tion should demon­strate its pride in Sgt. Per­alta’s hero­ism.

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