Top medal denied twice to Marine

Panetta says questions remain on heroic action in Iraq

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Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta has denied the request to give Sgt. Rafael Peralta the Medal of Honor, saying there are still too many questions to accept that he knowingly scooped a grenade beneath himself to absorb its blast and save his fellow Marines.

The Pentagon informed Peralta’s family Wednesday morning of the denial, eight years after he was killed in Fallujah, Iraq, and four years after then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates denied an initial bid to award Peralta the military’s top honor despite eyewitness reports from his platoon that he saved their lives.

Icela Donald, Peralta’s sister, said the decision was a disappointment — compounded by the lack of a good reason. She said the family was told that one overriding factor was Mr. Panetta’s reluctance to overturn the decision of Mr. Gates.

“That right there just truly made it even worse,” she said. “It’s not that they don’t want to do the right thing, it’s that they don’t want to turn over someone else’s decision.”

A Pentagon spokesman said the Defense Department wouldn’t comment “on Medal of Honor nominations under consideration.”

Peralta has been awarded the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor a Marine can earn, but his family has not accepted it. Ms. Donald said her mother feels that if she accepted it, she would be settling.

The quest to upgrade to the Medal of Honor seemed to get a big boost last week when Navy Secretary Ray Mabus backed the move, and Peralta has had a key ally in Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine officer.

Peralta was under consideration for the Medal of Honor four years ago, but the Pentagon questioned the reliability of eyewitnesses, who said Peralta scooped the grenade under him but disagreed about details such as which hand he used.

The Pentagon also pointed to autopsy data that suggested he was likely dead, and probably blinded, from a friendly-fire gunshot wound to the head and thus could not have voluntarily scooped the grenade toward himself.

“There is no way to reconcile differences in forensic evidence and conflicting testimony of Marines involved,” the Pentagon report said, but it concluded that the forensic evidence created enough “margin of doubt” that the medal could not be issued.

But Peralta’s combat comrades from the firefight, when he took the point as they tried to clear a house of insurgents, say there is no question that he deserves the Medal of Honor given what happened.

As they entered one room, they encountered insurgents lying in wait who opened fire. In the firefight, Peralta was shot in the head and fell as one of the insurgents tossed a grenade. Seven witnesses say Peralta, lying on the ground, scooped the grenade underneath himself, absorbing the blast and saving the lives of the men with him.

Peralta took his arm out and swept it underneath his body,” Robert Reynolds, who was a lance corporal in the platoon that day with Peralta, told The Washington Times last month. “If he didn’t sweep it underneath his body, I would be dead because I was five feet from him.”

Mr. Hunter said through a spokesman Wednesday that he would reserve comment until he receives the full justification from the Pentagon.

Mr. Hunter submitted new forensic analysis that backed up the eyewitness accounts that Peralta was cognizant and able to scoop the grenade underneath him.

Steve Sebby, who was a combat photographer following Peralta’s unit that day, told The Times in November that the Pentagon’s own Navy Cross citation seems to confirm Peralta’s heroism. That citation says Peralta “reached out and pulled the grenade to his body.”

“If he didn’t do any of that stuff, like the forensic evidence says, then why would he rate that medal? It’s either the Medal of Honor or nothing. That’s what stands out in this case,” Mr. Sebby said. “In wars past, the amount of statements that were made by the Marines — that would have flown, that would have gotten the Medal of Honor back in World War II, World War I. You’ve got a bunch of honest Marines recognizing heroism, that would have been enough.”

Ms. Donald, Peralta’s sister, said the denial is not the end of the quest. The family could wait for a new defense secretary who might be willing to overturn the decisions of Mr. Gates and Mr. Panetta.

Peralta also is receiving another honor: With the backing of Mr. Mabus and Mr. Hunter, a destroyer will be named after him.

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