Medal of Honor Nominee, Sgt. Rafael Peralta—The Citation Says It All


15 WHEREAS, his battalion redeployed to Iraq’s Anbar Province
16 in 2004 as part of Operation Phantom Fury to battle insurgents
17 in their stronghold of Fallujah; and
19 WHEREAS, on November 15, 2004, while assisting one of his
20 rifle platoon’s squads to clear a house of terrorists and
21 insurgents [in Fallujah, Iraq], Sgt. Peralta was mortally wounded when he smothered
22 an enemy grenade with his body to protect the soldiers in his
23 platoon, and is credited for saving the lives of six of his
24 fellow Marines;

BE IT RESOLVED that the House of Representatives of the
28 Twenty-fifth Legislature of the State of Hawaii, Regular Session
29 2009, the Senate concurring, that the Legislature strongly urges
30 the Secretary of Defense and the President of the United States
31 to reconsider their decisions and award Sgt. Rafael Peralta the
32 Medal of Honor for his bravery in sacrificing his life for his
33 fellow soldiers;

The Hawaii House Concurrent Resolution goes on to describe how the Marine Corps Commandant recommended Sgt. Rafael Peralta for the Medal of Honor and how a Board convened by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on September 18, 2008, concluded that Sgt. Peralta’s actions did not warrant the Medal of Honor, citing that the evidence did not meet the exacting “no doubt” standard necessary to support the awarding of the nation’s highest military award.

Before and since the Hawaii House Resolution, several Senators and Representatives, including virtually the entire California Congressional Delegation, have urged the Secretary of Defense and both President Bush and President Obama to award the Medal of Honor to this Marine hero.

Some have called this effort “politicizing” the military awards and decorations process, and “meddling” in what should be strictly a military responsibility.

Perhaps. But those who have thoroughly and objectively reviewed the case of Sgt. Peralta—including military members, including U.S. Marines—believe that a gross injustice has occurred and that Peralta is being denied his rightful honor.

There has been a huge outcry at this injustice by Sgt. Peralta’s family, by fellow Marines and by the American people—through petitions, through personal letters, through hundreds of articles, through the press and through their elected representatives.

Some have seen this as trying to “insert public opinion” into the process. Perhaps. But when an injustice is suspected to have occurred, the American people—the “public”—have, I believe, every right to express their opinion and seek redress—no matter what, who or why.

Something is very amiss in the case of Sgt. Peralta.

The central argument surrounding the decision not to award the Medal of Honor to Sgt. Peralta is as to whether the already critically wounded Peralta could have intentionally reached for a fragmentation grenade that had been thrown by an insurgent, scooped it under his body, thereby absorbing the explosion with his own body and saving the lives of six of his fellow Marines.

A panel convened by Secretary Robert Gates last year (a panel that included a neurosurgeon and two pathologists) concluded that Peralta’s sweeping a grenade under his body to protect his fellow Marines may not have been a deliberate act because his head wound was so severe that he could not have made a deliberate decision to reach for the grenade, and Gates rejected the Medal of Honor recommendation. “That decision outraged the Marines who were there and gave official statements saying they saw him reach for the grenade and that they believed he saved the lives of at least four men in doing so.”

Witnesses said Peralta fell to the ground face-first after being shot in the crossfire. A fleeing insurgent threw a hand grenade into the room, which bounced off a couch and landed near Peralta’s head.

“Sgt. Peralta grabbed the grenade and pulled it underneath him while we took cover,” said an unidentified Marine whose name is redacted as part of the investigative file the military released publicly.

Already during the Medal of Honor nomination process, the question arose as to whether the head wound received by Sgt, Peralta could have been so immediately incapacitating to prevent him from executing “any meaningful motions.” After further investigation, Marine Lt. General Richard F. Natonski, stuck with his recommendation: “I believe Sergeant Peralta made a conscious, heroic decision to cover the grenade and minimize the effects he knew it would have on the rest of his Marine team.”

According to the Stars and Stripes, Marine journalist Lance Cpl. T. J. Kaemmerer wrote a first-person account of the fight during which he accompanied the other Marines on a house-clearing mission in Fallujah:

I saw four Marines firing from the adjoining room when a yellow, foreign-made, oval-shaped grenade bounced into the room, rolling to a stop close to Peralta’s nearly lifeless body.

… Peralta — in his last fleeting moments of consciousness — reached out and pulled the grenade into his body.

Robert Reynolds, a Marine lance corporal at the time, was about three to five feet behind Peralta when the grenade exploded. He has no doubt that Peralta purposefully attempted to place the grenade underneath himself to save others: “It wasn’t just something he barely did. He physically reached out and pulled it into his body,” said Reynolds, 31, and now a corrections officer and father of two daughters in Ritzville, Wash., according to the Stars and Stripes

According to the Honolulu Advertiser, “At least four Marines with Peralta on Nov. 15, 2004, in Fallujah, Iraq, have stated in written reports that they saw the short and stocky Marine nicknamed ‘”Rafa’ pull a grenade to his body after it had bounced into a room, saving the lives of others in the process.”

In a letter to President Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R. Ca., son of Duncan L. Hunter, and a former Marine officer who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, says in part:

I am very concerned that the criteria for awarding the Medal of Honor, which has been historically based on eyewitness accounts, has now been replaced by modern forensic science…I firmly believe that eyewitness accounts of the event should take precedent through the entire chain of command review process because heroic actions in combat cannot always be explained by science alone.

Hunter has also said: “The decision contradicts the eyewitness accounts of those Marines that were fighting alongside Sergeant Peralta and witnessed his heroic actions…These accounts should take precedence.”

President Bush singled out Sgt. Peralta for throwing his body on a grenade to save his comrades in Iraq.
And how about Sgt. Peralta’s mother, Rosa, and his family?

In the bottom of their hearts, Rosa and other family members feel it is right…The family believes the Marines that were with Sergeant Peralta. The government trusted those Marines to fight for this country in Fallujah, and it should believe them now.

But, strangely enough—almost incredibly—the most powerful support and justification for awarding the medal of Honor to Peralta and the most powerful rebuttal to and contradiction of the Gates Panel contention that the wounded Peralta could not have made a “deliberate decision” to reach for the grenade, comes from the citation accompanying the award of the Navy Cross to Sgt. Peralta. (Peralta was presented the Navy Cross instead of the Medal of Honor).

The citation reads, in part:

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. 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. Sergeant Peralta succumbed to his wounds. By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty, Sergeant Peralta reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

No, I don’t believe that the American people are trying to politicize this hallowed process. Neither do I think that public opinion should enter into that process. However, I strongly believe that the public has the right, the obligation, to express an opinion when it believes that something is not right, is not just. After all, decision makers, members of panels—no matter how prestigious or exclusive—and even the Secretary of Defense and the President of the United States are human beings, and human being sometimes do make mistakes.

An article in the Honolulu Advertiser this past weekend has the encouraging headline “Marine could still get medal.”