September 19, 2008 – A day after the military denied a San Diego Marine a posthumous Medal of Honor, some members of Congress urged the Pentagon to reconsider and the president to intervene.
At least five Southern California representatives – Democrats and Republicans – made appeals yesterday on behalf of Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was awarded a Navy Cross.
Peralta was killed Nov. 15, 2004, when he intentionally pulled an insurgent’s grenade to his chest and shielded fellow servicemen from its blast during a battle in Fallujah, Iraq, according to the Navy Cross citation.
After nearly four years of review, the Department of Defense rejected the Medal of Honor nomination for Peralta because a review panel couldn’t determine with certainty whether he acted deliberately. The decision ignited fierce criticism in the blogosphere as well as in the halls of Congress.
“It’s a viper’s nest. They don’t know what they’re doing,” said Doug Sterner of Pueblo, Colo., a historian of valor awards who runs the Web site homeofheroes.com. “Medals are capriciously awarded by a bunch of chair-bound rangers who wouldn’t know valor if it bit them in the (butt).”
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, took to the House floor yesterday to voice his displeasure with Peralta’s medal, the military’s second-highest decoration for valor. He sought help from President Bush, who had praised Peralta’s heroism in a 2005 Memorial Day speech.
Hunter and several other members of Congress – including Reps. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista; Brian Bilbray, R-Carlsbad; Susan Davis, D-San Diego; and Joe Baca, D-San Bernardino – are jointly working on a letter to Bush.
“We hope our appeal will trigger a new review,” Filner said.
Davis questioned why the Marine Corps, the U.S. Central Command and Navy Secretary Donald Winter endorsed Peralta for the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest decoration for combat valor, while the Pentagon decided to give him the Navy Cross.
Usually, the Pentagon must approve a Medal of Honor nomination before the president confers it. But a nomination also can be made through a special act of Congress, and the president can act on behalf of those legislators.
Although the Marine Corps recommended Peralta for the Medal of Honor, a 282-page report that it completed in December 2005 lays out conflicting evidence.
The report included findings from Army Col. Eric Berg, a pathologist who performed an autopsy on Peralta. Berg said a bullet fragment that struck Peralta in the back of the head “would have been immediately incapacitating and nearly instantly fatal. He could not have executed any meaningful motions.”
Berg also said Peralta’s injuries weren’t consistent with those caused by a grenade explosion against the upper body. The grenade likely exploded near Peralta’s knee or thigh, he added.
By contrast, a neurologist, two neurosurgeons and the surgeon for Peralta’s battalion said Peralta could have purposely grabbed the grenade and tucked it into his chest. After examining the autopsy data, they said the bullet fragment likely didn’t kill him quickly because it was traveling at a “low velocity.”
Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman said because of the contradictory opinions, Gates asked five other people to review the case – a former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, a Medal of Honor recipient, a civilian neurosurgeon who is retired from the military and two forensic pathologists who also are military retirees.
The five looked at medical reports that had not been available during the initial review. Their scrutiny also included re-enacting the incident, Whitman said.
“Each independently recommended to the secretary that the evidence did not support the award of Medal of Honor,” he said.
Sterner said it is unprecedented for a Defense secretary to appoint a special committee to review or overturn a recommendation by a service secretary such as Winter.
It’s also unheard of to have the statements of eyewitnesses overruled by forensic evidence, he said.
“I think the Marine Corps ought to declare war on the secretary of defense,” Sterner said.
The national president of the Legion of Valor – whose membership is restricted to recipients of the military’s two highest awards for combat valor – said he doubted that any amount of lobbying would change the decision.
“I think the probability is that this is dead for awhile,” said Tom Richards of Rancho Bernardo. “It would be difficult but not impossible.”
Although he said he believes Peralta deserves the Medal of Honor, he also said Gates’ decision ought to stand.
“I don’t like politicians tinkering with the process,” Richards said.