Marines fight for recog­ni­tion of fallen com­rade

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY STEPHEN DINAN

U.S. com­bat troops are gone from Iraq, but for some of the Marines who lived through it, there’s one more fight to win: mak­ing sure one of the fallen, Sgt. Rafael Per­alta, is awarded the Medal of Honor.

Eight years af­ter Per­alta smoth­ered a live grenade with his body in a fire­fight at a house in Fal­lu­jah, and four years af­ter the De­fense De­part­ment re­jected a pe­ti­tion to award him the mil­i­tary’s top honor, the de­ci­sion is once again back be­fore the de­fense sec­re­tary, and Per­alta’s back­ers said they ex­pect a new de­ci­sion by month’s end.

“It’s been a long process, but I’m con­fi­dent that the sec­re­tary will make the right call and award Sgt. Per­alta the Medal of Honor. It’s what he de­serves,” said Rep. Dun­can Hunter, a Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­can who as a Marine of­fi­cer com­pleted tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and who has been an evan­ge­list for Per­alta’s case.

Per­alta’s com­bat com­rades from that Nov. 15, 2004, fire­fight, when he took the point as they tried to clear a house of in­sur­gents, say there is no ques­tion he de­serves the Medal of Honor, given what hap­pened.

As they en­tered one room, they en­coun­tered in­sur­gents ly­ing in wait who opened fire. In the fire­fight, Per­alta was shot in the head and fell, even as one of the in­sur­gents tossed a grenade. Seven wit­nesses say Per­alta, ly­ing on the ground, scooped the grenade un­der­neath him­self, ab­sorb­ing the blast and sav­ing the lives of the men with him.

“Per­alta took his arm out and swept it un­der­neath his body,” Robert Reynolds, who was a lance cor­po­ral in the pla­toon that day with Per­alta, told The Washington Times. “If he didn’t sweep it un­der­neath his body, I would be dead be­cause I was five feet from him.”

It turns out that tes­ti­mo­nial is crit­i­cal, be­cause it mat­ters what was hap­pen­ing five feet from Per­alta.

The Pen­tagon’s ini­tial re­view of the in­ci­dent said that based on au­topsy pho­tos, X-rays and the con­di­tion of his body ar­mor, the grenade det­o­nated near Per­alta’s left side at about knee level, rather than un­der­neath him — which is where it should have been had he swept it with his arm.

Fur­ther, the re­view said the gun­shot wound to Per­alta’s head, from friendly fire, may have killed him in­stantly, and prob­a­bly left him blind, which would have meant he couldn’t have scooped the grenade to­ward him­self.

“There is no way to rec­on­cile dif­fer­ences in foren­sic ev­i­dence and con­flict­ing tes­ti­mony of Marines in­volved,” the report said, but it con­cluded that the foren­sic ev­i­dence cre­ated enough “mar­gin of doubt” that the medal could not be is­sued.

Based on that report, thenDe­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates de­nied the Marine Corps’ pe­ti­tion for the Medal of Honor, and in­stead awarded Per­alta the Navy Cross.

Steve Sebby, who was a com­bat pho­tog­ra­pher fol­low­ing Per­alta’s unit that day, said the Navy Cross doesn’t make sense here.

“If he didn’t do any of that stuff, like the foren­sic ev­i­dence says, then why would he rate that medal? It’s ei­ther the Medal of Honor or noth­ing. That’s what stands out in this case,” Mr. Sebby said. “In wars past, the amount of state­ments that were made by the Marines — that would have flown, that would have got­ten the Medal of Honor back in World War II, World War I. You’ve got a bunch of hon­est Marines rec­og­niz­ing hero­ism, that would have been enough.”

In­deed, the ci­ta­tion for the Navy Cross af­firms that Per­alta “reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, ab­sorb­ing the brunt of the blast and shield­ing fel­low Marines only feet away.”

It has never been clear whether other is­sues caused Mr. Gates to is­sue the Navy Cross in­stead, though some of Per­alta’s sup­port­ers have sus­pected so.

The De­fense De­part­ment is say­ing lit­tle.

“We are re­view­ing the re­quest,” spokes­woman Eileen Lainez said in a brief email Nov. 19.

Mr. Hunter said the re­quest is now be­fore De­fense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panetta.

Among the new ev­i­dence in front of him is a re­view con­ducted by Per­alta’s back­ers in which spe­cial­ists con­cluded that the body-ar­mor dam­age was con­sis­tent with a grenade blast, and a na­tion­ally renowned gun­shot-wound spe­cial­ist who re­viewed the au­topsy in­for­ma­tion and said it’s likely that Per­alta was alive and cog­nizant enough to have swept the grenade be­neath him.

Mr. Reynolds, the former lance cor­po­ral who is now a cor­rec­tions of­fi­cer in Washington state said there is no dif­fer­ence be­tween Per­alta’s case and that of Marine Cpl. Ja­son Dun­ham, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for cov­er­ing a grenade to pro­tect his com­rades. Dun­ham died in the blast. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush awarded that medal posthu­mously, mak­ing Dun­ham the first Marine since the Viet­nam War to earn the mil­i­tary’s high­est honor.

Per­alta’s com­bat com­rades have ral­lied around his me­mory.

Mr. Sebby helped breathe new life into the Medal of Honor push af­ter he saw a news report sev­eral years ago that talked about a snip­pet of com­bat video from the in­ci­dent. Mr. Sebby said he knew he had filed more video than that, and even re­mem­bered the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber to help find it in the ar­chives.

Mr. Sebby cap­tured ev­ery­thing lead­ing up to and af­ter the fire­fight on his Sony PD-150 hand­held cam­era, though he didn’t tape the grenade at­tack it­self — “I wasn’t go­ing to be hold­ing a cam­era when I could be hold­ing a ri­fle,” he told The Times.

His video in­cluded the pla­toon drag­ging Per­alta out of the house, and he said the in­juries vis­i­ble on his body back up the Marines’ ac­counts. That video is also among the new ev­i­dence Per­alta’s back­ers have asked the de­fense sec­re­tary to re­view.

Mr. Sebby, who works for a mu­sic book­ing agency, Carmel Mu­sic and En­ter­tain­ment, said that two weeks ago, on the eighth an­niver­sary of the fire­fight, that some of those in­volved in the fight took to Face­book to com­mem­o­rate Per­alta once again.

“He saved some lives that day, and those peo­ple are still remembering,” said Mr. Sebby who, like Mr. Reynolds, says he is alive to­day be­cause of Per­alta. “There are a lot of us con­tin­u­ing our lives and remembering there’s a guy be­hind that al­lows us to do what we’re do­ing now.”

SAN DIEGO UNION-TRI­BUNE

A MOTHER RE­MEM­BERS: Rosa Maria Per­alta vis­its her son’s bed­room at her home in San Diego shortly af­ter his death. Sgt. Rafael Per­alta was killed in ac­tion in Fal­lu­jah, Iraq in 2004.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

This un­dated photo re­leased by the U.S. Marines shows Sgt. Rafael Per­alta, who is be­ing con­sid­ered for a post­hu­mous Medal of Honor, the United States’ high­est mil­i­tary award.

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