source GAIA package: Origin key: Sx_MilitaryTimes_M6201410301080032 imported at Fri Jan 8 18:18:13 2016

The congressman pushing for Sgt. Rafael Peralta to receive the military's highest combat valor honor says the fallen Marine's busted-up rifle, preserved in storage at the National Museum of the Marine Corps outside Washington, may provide new evidence of his battlefield heroism.

Peralta was awarded the Navy Cross posthumously in 2008, some four years after he was killed in combat in Fallujah, Iraq. But Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., is among a crowd of supporters who say Peralta should have received the Medal of Honor instead, pointing to evidence that, during his final moments alive, Peralta covered a grenade with his body to protect his fellow Marines.

In a new letter from Hunter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the congressman claims Peralta's M16 rifle, which Hunter's staff recently unearthed at the museum, bears physical markings that corroborate this account of heroism. The Jan. 6 letter included close-up photos of shrapnel scars on the weapon's hand guards, upper receiver and bolt assist.

"Since Peralta was right handed, therefore carrying the rifle on his right side, the damage to the weapon is consistent with the assertion that the grenade detonated underneath Peralta's left side torso, with the weapon near, but not directly covering the grenade," Hunter wrote. "An additional photo shows the damaged bullets retrieved from Peralta's weapon."

Marine Corps Times reviewed photos of the weapon, which corroborate this description. The bullets recovered from the weapon, also photographed, were mangled and shredded.

Earlier this month, Hunter sent Hagel two new eyewitness accounts of the aftermath of the grenade blast. One, from an unnamed Marine amphibious assault vehicle section leader, recalled the recovery of Peralta's weapon. A Marine "brought over a rifle that was mangled and covered with blood. He asked me for some baby wipes and began to feverishly clean the blood off the weapon, visibly shaken at what happened," the account reads. "... The weapon was still loaded with a round in the chamber, but because of shrapnel damage to the bolt/ejection part of the weapon, the bold was fused forward and unable to move ... there was visible damage to the hand guards of the weapon as well."

A spokesman for Hunter, Joe Kasper, said the damage the rifle sustained, according to the photos and the description, was consistent with the detonation of a low-yield grenade.

"Just the shrapnelling on the weapon is only possible if the grenade detonated under Peralta's torso," he said.

The National Museum of the Marine Corps, located outside the Marines' base in Quantico, Va., acquired Peralta's rifle in August 2010, its battle dirt and debris intact, said Al Houde, senior weapons curator for the museum. Museum staff located the weapon in the armory of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit in Okinawa, Japan, after receiving a letter from a Marine who served with Peralta and was disappointed it wasn't on display.

Houde said the museum's plan is to display the weapon in a standalone case that told Peralta's story in the final phase of a large museum expansion project that will run from 2015-2020.

Controversy remains at the heart of Peralta's story. The Corps nominated Peralta for the Medal of Honor, but then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates questioned whether the Marine acted consciously to cover the grenade, pointing to a head wound he sustained from a ricocheting bullet fragment. A report from Peralta's autopsy also indicated that the grenade may have exploded six to 10 feet from Peralta's left side, though follow-on reports challenged that account.

When Leon Panetta succeeded Gates as head of the Defense Department, he opted not to overturn his predecessor's decision.

But support for Peralta has never abated. In 2012, the Navy announced it would name a destroyer for him, in keeping with an amendment Hunter had inserted in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act.

Museum staff said they plan to feature Peralta's rifle in an exhibit whether or not his award is ever upgraded.

"What we look for," museum spokeswoman Gwenn Adams said, "are items that can tell a compelling story."