- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 4, 2013

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.

Mr. Gates’ successor as defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, reviewed the case last year and appeared to be poised to approve it, but he ended up rejecting it.

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.

“Secretary Hagel is familiarizing himself with the history of the case so that he may appropriately respond to Rep. Hunter’s letter,” Mr. Woog said.

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.”

Mr. Hunter said the top of the Defense Department has issued no clear directive on what constitutes a good Medal of Honor case, and he said that has left Peralta and others with lesser awards.

All of the handful of Medals of Honor President George W. Bush awarded during his tenure were posthumous. “That should be an extraordinary flag for DOD folks,” Mr. Hunter said.

Peralta was leading a squad of Marines who were clearing houses in Fallujah in 2004 when they entered a room and insurgents opened fire.

Peralta was shot in the head, apparently by friendly fire. As he fell, one of the insurgents tossed a grenade.

Witnesses say Peralta collected the grenade to his body, absorbing the blast. But the medical examiner who performed an autopsy concluded that 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 last year in a letter explaining his decision to reject the Medal of Honor. “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.”

Peralta instead was awarded the Navy Cross, the second-highest combat honor in the Navy and Marines.

Mr. Hunter said the same thing is true for Marine Maj. Brian Chontosh.

As a first lieutenant in the initial push in Iraq in 2003, he drove into an ambush, ordered his Humvee forward and took out an enemy machine-gun post, then jumped out of the vehicle and used his rifle and pistol to attack a trench.

Out of ammunition, he picked up two enemy AK-47s and “continued his ferocious attack,” according to his Navy Cross citation. He also picked up an enemy rocket-propelled grenade launcher and “used it to destroy yet another group of enemy soldiers.”

“When his audacious attack ended, he had cleared over 200 meters of the enemy trench, killing more than 20 enemy soldiers and wounding several others,” the citation said.

Mr. Hunter said there are troops “that have done incredible things” who deserve the Medal of Honor. He said with Capt. Swenson having the medal, the focus should shift to Peralta.

“Then, once credibility’s restored to the process, you can go through the process, fix it so it doesn’t take outside intervention to do the right thing,” he said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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