The family of fallen Iraq war hero Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta accepted the nation’s second-highest award for valor, the Navy Cross, on his behalf nearly a decade after the Pentagon denied him the Medal of Honor.
At age 25, Sgt. Peralta from San Diego absorbed a grenade blast with his body during house-to-house fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, on Nov. 15, 2004, while participating in Operation Phantom Fury.
Ricardo Peralta, who followed his brother Rafael into the Marines, told The Washington Post before the award ceremony on Monday that the long and unsuccessful campaign to get his brother’s award upgraded to Medal of Honor has been difficult on his family.
He expressed frustration that “coward” defense secretaries refused to upgrade the award, reported The Post.
“For me, it’s pretty disappointing,” Ricardo said. “It’s almost like a slap in the face.”
Although the Navy and Marine Corps recommended the Medal of Honor, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates denied the award in 2008 amid concerns that Peralta may have been too wounded to understand what he did.
“The decision came after the inspector general of the Defense Department fielded a complaint and Gates assembled a team of experts that recommended the highest honor be denied,” notes The Associated Press (AP).
In his memoir, Gates wrote that he initially approved the Medal of Honor, but changed his mind after the investigation.
Many Marines were outraged after Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel, Gates’s successors as secretaries of defense, upheld the decision to deny the Medal of Honor.
“While attempting to maneuver out of the line of fire, Sergeant Peralta was shot and fell mortally wounded. After the initial exchange of gunfire, the insurgents broke contact, throwing a fragmentation grenade as they fled the building,” states the Navy Cross award citation. “The grenade came to rest near Sergeant Peralta’s head. 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 fellow Marines only feet away.”
During a ceremony at Camp Pendleton in California, Rosa Peralta, the deceased sergeant’s mother, accepted the posthumous Navy Cross awarded to her son.
She received the award from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus after long refusing to do so, believing that her son deserved the Medal of Honor instead.
According to the sergeant’s brother, “His mother relented as plans progressed to name a missile destroyer after the fallen Marine. She plans to donate the medal to the USS Rafael Peralta when it is christened later this year,” reports AP.
“She felt, for the first time, something that displayed his spirit in essence,” said the brother. “That gave her a complete change of heart. She thought it was appropriate for now for her to receive the Navy Cross.”
Sgt. Peralta’s former comrades who were present when he was killed and U.S. lawmakers who pushed for a Medal of Honor for the fallen warrior attended the award ceremony.
Sgt. Peralta was an infantryman serving with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. He was a naturalized citizen who was born in Mexico.
“Long after his death, conflicting accounts of his last actions and accusations of an unfair review process for his failed Medal of Honor nomination persist,” notes The San Diego Union-Tribune.
During the award ceremony, Staff Sgt. Adam Morrison said he remains convinced that Peralta voluntarily smothered the grenade with his body despite the fact that he was dying.
“Because of Rafael Peralta, I’m here today,” said Morrison, 30, who was injured by the blast. “Because of Rafael Peralta, my father is now the grandfather to three boys.”
Nevertheless, in interviews with The Washington Post, three Marines in Peralta’s unit in Fallujah suggested that fellow Marines there lied about what happened to memorialize the sergeant by saying that he covered the grenade with his body.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, was a lead advocate in the fight to upgrade the medal.
Through a spokesman, he reportedly indicated that “he and other supporters may lobby the Pentagon for a fresh look at the totality of the evidence, after bureaucrats who blocked the appeals retire.”
“This is what it means to be a hero. This is what it means to know what the values of this country stand for, and go and do something about it, and go fight. And in this case, die,” Rep. Duncan said of Peralta during the ceremony on Monday.