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Hagel: No Medal of Honor for Peralta

Feb. 21, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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Marines at the scene provide their takes on what happened the day Sgt. Rafael Peralta was killed after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's office announced Friday he will not nominate him for the Medal of Honor. (Marine Corps)

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will not reopen the Medal of Honor case for Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, his office announced Friday.

“After extensively familiarizing himself with the history of Sgt. Peralta’s nomination, Secretary Hagel determined the totality of the evidence does not meet the ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt’ Medal of Honor award standard,” OSD officials said in a release. “The Department of Defense has taken extraordinary measures to ensure Sgt. Peralta’s nomination received full consideration.”

In a Feb. 20 letter to Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., Hagel said he had “extensively familiarized himself with Peralta’s case, including new witness statements and photographs, but found the case simply did not meet the high standard that the military’s highest honor requires.

Peralta was 25 when he was killed during fighting in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004. The Marine Corps first submitted a Medal of Honor package for him in 2008, saying he had grabbed a live grenade and pulled it underneath him to save the lives of fellow Marines. But then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided there wasn’t enough evidence that Peralta, who had been hit in the head by a ricocheting bullet fragment, was able to consciously grab the grenade and that he actually did so, and awarded Peralta’s family the Navy Cross, which requires a lesser degree of proof.

The decision was heartbreaking for Peralta’s family, who refused to accept the Navy Cross, insisting that he had earned the higher award.

In his new book, “Duty,” Gates revealed that he had actually signed off on Peralta’s nomination in 2008, but was forced to rescind the action when he became aware of a Defense Department Inspector General complaint that alleged Peralta could not have done what his award package claimed.

Gates’ successor, Leon Panetta, reconsidered the matter when it was brought to his attention by Hunter, but opted to let his predecessor’s decision stand in 2012.

When Hagel became Defense secretary in early 2013, Hunter once again renewed the matter, unearthing new photos of Peralta’s shrapnel-scarred rifle and eyewitness statements from a Navy corpsman and Marine amphibious assault vehicle section leader who testified that the wounds Peralta sustained were consistent with those of a low-yield grenade blast.

In Hagel’s letter, he said that he and a team of professionals from other offices, including the Armed Forces Medical Examiner and the DoD General Counsel, had given the evidence, new and old, an exhaustive look.

Hagel outlined the findings for each piece of evidence in three pages of enclosures to the letter:

Video: Footage in which Peralta’s body is seen being transported after his death does not show Peralta’s abdomen so that officials can evaluate the wounds he might have sustained there, Hagel said. Additionally, he said, Peralta’s autopsy report and autopsy photographs do not indicate wounds to his abdomen.

Pathologist’s opinion: This 2010 report by gunshot wound expert Vincent DiMaio critiques elements of the autopsy report that suggest that Peralta was incapacitated by his head wound at the time of his death and points to grouped shrapnel damage on his vest that may indicate a grenade blast.

“However,” Hagel said, “The key doubt is raised by certified forensic pathologists of the AFME system, who have consistently opined that Sgt. Peralta’s wounds are consistent with a grenade detonating some distance to his left side rather than underneath or against his body. The autopsy report and photographs are consistent with these AFME medical opinions.”

Photographs: Photos show heavy shrapnel damage to Peralta’s rifle, to the walls of the house in which he died, and to his body armor. However, Hagel said, the damage is consistent with a grenade detonating some distance away from Peralta’s left side.

Witness statements: The new statements, Hagel said, do not constitute “new, substantive, or material” information from what was already known.

A spokesman for Hunter, Joe Kasper, said the congressman was grateful Hagel had given Peralta’s case a thorough review.

“From the beginning, the idea was to refocus the attention on the overwhelming material evidence that verifiably shows the grenade did not detonate six to ten feet from Peralta’s left side but rather underneath him,” Kasper said. “The information was submitted to [Hagel], who committed from the very beginning to take an honest and thorough look at the entire package and anything that was submitted in addition to the Corps’ initial paperwork. And for that, Congressman Hunter is grateful.”

Kasper said it’s not clear if a way exists to renew a Medal of Honor appeal for Peralta at a point in the future.

But, he said, “those Marines who served with Sgt. Peralta and know what they saw will continue living their lives knowing they were given a second chance by one hell of a Marine.”

Peralta’s legacy will be honored in another way soon: A Navy destroyer was christened the USS Rafael Peralta in 2013.? The Navy plans to lay the keel for that ship this year.

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