Sgt. Rafael Peralta (AP)
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Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have launched a new push to get fallen Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta the Medal of Honor, just as new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel takes office.
A joint resolution is circulating in Congress recommending that Peralta receive the nation's top valor award. It comes a little more than two months after recently retired Defense Secretary Leon Panetta decided that new evidence presented on the Marine's behalf fell short of what is needed to award him the Medal of Honor. The resolution is backed by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a staunch Peralta supporter, but also has support so far in the House from Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., and in the Senate from Sen. Diane Feinstein, D.-Calif, said Joe Kasper, a spokesman for Hunter.
Peralta, 25, died in a grenade blast in Fallujah, Iraq, on Nov. 15, 2004. The Marine Corps put him up for the Medal of Honor posthumously, crediting him with saving the lives of other Marines by smothering the explosion. The award was subsequently approved by the Navy Department but denied in 2008 by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, infuriating the Peralta family and Marines across the country.
Hunter, who served as a Marine officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, raised the prospect that Hagel could be more sympathetic to Peralta's cause, considering the new defense secretary served in the Army as an enlisted infantryman in Vietnam. Panetta also served in the Army as an intelligence officer, but Hagel is the first enlisted grunt to lead the Pentagon.
"He was an infantryman. He was enlisted," Hunter said of Hagel. "Sergeant Peralta was in the position, with seven eyewitnesses confirming his actions. That's gotta mean something to Secretary Hagel."
Gates decided the evidence in Peralta's case left unclear whether Peralta made a conscious decision to smother the grenade because he already had been mortally wounded in the head by a ricocheting rifle round. The Navy Department awarded Peralta the Navy Cross instead, and said in his citation that he had "reached out and pulled the grenade to his body" — a selfless, heroic act typically associated exclusively with the Medal of Honor.
Hunter submitted new evidence on Peralta's behalf last year: A pathology report by Vincent DiMaio, an expert on gunshot wounds, and a video recorded by a Marine combat correspondent moments after Peralta died. Both appear to back Peralta's case for the Medal of Honor.
The pathologist who conducted Peralta's initial autopsy raised questions about whether the Marine's gunshot wound was immediately incapacitating, and why there wasn't more damage to his torso if he absorbed the grenade blast with his body. Questions also were raised whether the grenade detonated near Peralta's left leg.
DiMaio's report takes issue with all those issues, however. Unless a vital area of the brain is injured, his report said, "one should be extremely careful in giving the opinion that an individual was absolutely unable to perform an action." DiMaio also noted that Peralta was wearing body armor when the blast occurred, and his vest showed "numerous shrapnel trauma densely grouped in the left mid chest along with the grenade fuse."
The video, reviewed by Marine Corps Times, shows Marines dragging Peralta's remains from the house in which he appeared to die. The left leg of his trousers has some blood on it but is intact and does not appear to have the catastrophic damage one would assume if a grenade had exploded nearby.
Hunter said it's time to move forward with the case.
"We're going to introduce this resolution and show there's strong bipartisan support for upgrading Sergeant Peralta's Navy Cross to the Medal of Honor," he said. "There are several options for moving forward, including an appeal to Secretary Hagel."