Sgt. Maj. Bradley Kasal received the Navy Cross for heroic actions performed as a first sergeant during a 2004 firefight in Fallujah, Iraq. (Sgt. Luis R. Agostini/Marine Corps)
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In light of the news that Marine veteran Kyle Carpenter will receive the Medal of Honor for shielding his friend from a live grenade in Afghanistan, a California congressman is petitioning Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to take a closer look at the awards for two Marines who reportedly committed similar acts of heroism.
Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter sent a letter to Hagel Tuesday asking that he reconsider the awards for Marine Sgt. Maj. Bradley Kasal and the late Sgt. Rafael Peralta, both of whom received the Navy Cross for maneuvering to absorb the brunt of a grenade blast to shield a comrade.
Hunter has waged an aggressive multiyear campaign seeking a medal upgrade for Peralta, whose family resides in his district. In February, Hagel became the third defense secretary to decline to seek the higher award in Peralta’s case, citing a lack of conclusive evidence of the action to meet the medal’s “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.
Some of the evidence, including the initial medical examiner’s report, led to disputes over whether Peralta, wounded in the head by a bullet fragment, could have acted consciously to cover a live grenade, and whether the blast pattern and wounds bore out that he did so.
With reports that medically retired Cpl. Kyle Carpenter will receive the medal for jumping on a grenade to save his friend — a case in which there is substantial physical evidence of the act, but no eyewitnesses — Hunter is broadening his efforts.
His letter referenced Peralta, Kasal, Carpenter and fallen Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham, saying the cases of these four Marines illustrate the inconsistencies in the Medal of Honor process.
According to his Navy Cross citation, then-1st Sgt. Kasal joined a squad trying to clear a house of enemy fighters and rescue wounded Marines in Fallujah in November 2004. When insurgents threw a grenade into the room, Kasal rolled on top of his fellow Marine, using his own body to shield the Marine from the blast. He sustained severe wounds from about 40 pieces of hot shrapnel.
Dunham posthumously received the Medal of Honor in 2006 for covering a grenade with his helmet to save fellow Marines during fighting in Iraq.
“For each of these Marines, their actions are uniquely similar,” Hunter wrote. “Enemy grenades were involved and each Marine either covered the grenade blast or intentionally shielded others. All of them preserved the lives of their fellow Marines.”
In both Peralta’s and Carpenter’s cases, the evidence to support the Medal of Honor award required further examination, Hunter wrote. Hunter maintains that the grenade fuze recovered from Peralta’s body armor indicates that the blast went off underneath him.
But in a letter explaining his decision not to reopen the Medal of Honor case, Hagel wrote that Peralta’s wounds, coupled with photo and video evidence from the scene, indicated the grenade detonated some distance away from his left side.
In the Carpenter case, the bulk of the evidence for the act of heroism appears to hinge on the location of the blast seat of the grenade, found under Carpenter’s torso, as well as the catastrophic nature of his wounds.
The Defense Department has not released Carpenter’s medal citation or officially announced the decision to give him the award.
“Also, in your response [regarding Peralta], you state that the Defense Department standard is that the ‘MoH recommendations must include eyewitness statements,’” Hunter wrote. “Should none exist or lines of sight differ and accounts differ, then it is necessary to fully examine all other information needed to make an appropriate judgment. And, in that regard, all cases must apply the same standards.”
Other troops, too, have been “clearly misrepresented” by the awards process, Hunter wrote, citing Marine Maj. Brian Chontosh, who received the Navy Cross for barreling into an enemy trench in Baghdad in 2003 and dispatching at least 20 fighters — killing some with their own weapons — to save his platoon caught in a kill zone.
Hunter also referred to fallen Army Sgt 1st. Class Alwyn Cashe, who sacrificed his life pulling soldiers out of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle that was engulfed in flames in Iraq in 2005.
“They, too,” Hunter said, “are examples of the subjectivity in a process that should have absolutely none.”
Officials in the Office of the Secretary of Defense have said they do not comment on Hagel’s personal correspondence.
Hunter’s letter comes the week after the Defense Department announced a comprehensive review of its military decorations and awards process, which will incorporate insights from the most recent wars.
“After 13 years of war, we must use lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan to improve our awards program and ensure that our troops are being honored appropriately,” Hagel announced March 20.
Hunter said the review presents an opportunity to examine “one of the great mysteries of the war in Iraq,” that no living Medal of Honor recipients emerged from the conflict. The review gives military and defense officials a chance to change the record for some troops who have already received a lesser award, he said.
“Throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Medal of Honor process has worked as it should on 13 occasions (soon to be 14), given that there are now that many recipients of the top award,” Hunter wrote. “For the rest who were either denied or downgraded, there is still an opportunity to do the right thing.”