Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is taking another look at the case of a Marine sergeant who fell on a grenade, smothering the blast and saving the lives of his squadmates in Iraq, but who has been denied the Medal of Honor by the two previous defense secretaries.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who served combat tours as a Marine officer in Afghanistan and Iraq, has made Sgt. Rafael Peralta’s case a mission, and the congressman said Wednesday that the credibility of the Medal of Honor system is riding on whether the Defense Department gets his case right.
The Marine Corps recommended Peralta for the medal after the 2004 incident, in which his fellow Marines say he saved their lives by scooping the grenade beneath himself. But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates convened a special review that discounted the eyewitness testimony and concluded that Peralta, who had just been shot in the head, could not have been acting consciously.
With Mr. Hagel having taken the job this year, Mr. Hunter has asked for another review. He said he hopes Mr. Hagel, as an enlisted soldier who earned two Purple Hearts leading an infantry squad in Vietnam, will look at the case with a fresh set of eyes.
“If you do the right thing on Peralta, it will show the military that, hey, we can do the Medal of Honor process properly,” the congressman told The Washington Times.
He and two California Democrats, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Xavier Becerra, wrote a letter asking that the nomination be reopened.
There is no indication that Mr. Hagel has reopened the case, but Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog said the secretary is taking a look at some of the details.
The Medal of Honor system has been criticized in recent years by those who say it no longer recognizes troops who deserve the award.
As one of those chief critics, Mr. Hunter offered two cases: that of Peralta and former Army Capt. William Swenson, who was nominated for the medal in 2009 after braving enemy fire to rescue wounded and dead troops in Afghanistan. Capt. Swenson’s paperwork apparently was lost, and it wasn’t until backers pushed the case that he was approved for the honor.
Mr. Hunter said the Peralta case also is being mishandled and underscores a broken process for the military’s top honor, reserved for the highest valor and bravery in combat.
“When Gates turned this down, it was the first time ever that a board had been instituted to prove doubt on a case like this — ever — in American history,” Mr. Hunter said. “I don’t think Panetta wanted to overturn Gates‘ ruling and I think that does play a large part in this.”