Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Thursday that he denied the Medal of Honor to Sgt. Rafael Peralta because the evidence from his autopsy created more than a reasonable doubt that he was able to knowingly scoop a grenade beneath him — the act his fellow Marines said saved their lives.
In a letter to Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who has taken special interest in Peralta’s case, Mr. Panetta said he personally reviewed all the evidence, including videos, and did not see enough new evidence to overturn the 2008 decision of his predecessor, former Secretary Robert M. Gates.
“In light of the strict standards that have been established for awarding the Medal of Honor and the fact that a thorough review of the evidence has not indicated ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt,’ I cannot in good conscience change the recommendation of Secretary Robert Gates,” Mr. Panetta said.
Navy regulations say there must be “no margin of doubt or possibility of error” in awarding the Medal of Honor.
Peralta died in Fallujah, Iraq, in November 2004. He was leading a squadron of Marines in clearing houses when they entered a room where insurgents were waiting, and opened fire. Peralta was shot in the head, apparently by friendly fire, and as he fell one of the insurgents tossed a grenade.
Witnesses say Peralta collected the grenade to his body, absorbing the blast and protecting his squad. But the medical examiner who performed an autopsy concluded Peralta was probably dead and almost certainly blinded by the gunshot wound, making it impossible that he knowingly scooped up the grenade.
“They cast more than a reasonable doubt,” Mr. Panetta said. “To disregard this evidence, or to abandon the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard for the MOH, would also be unfair to all others considered for the MOH but whose heroic actions fell just short of this rigorous evidentiary standard.”
Mr. Hunter, who served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine officer, said the decision left him “beyond disappointed.”
The congressman said he had submitted to the Pentagon new videos and a new evaluation by an expert who reviewed the autopsy records and concluded that the gunshot wound would not have prevented Peralta from being cognizant.