- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Three months after former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta denied him the Medal of Honor, Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta’s congressional backers have started a new effort to have him awarded the nation’s top military honor.

Led by Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, a group of Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate has introduced a resolution urging the administration to award Peralta the medal posthumously.

The move comes on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Peralta was leading a squad clearing homes in Fallujah in November 2004 when he and his men ran into an ambush. He was struck in the back of the head by a bullet fragment and went down as one of the insurgents tossed a grenade toward the Marines.

The men with him say Peralta scooped the grenade to his body, absorbing the blast and saving their lives. But an independent panel, using the autopsy report, concluded that Peralta was likely blinded and left incapacitated by the bullet and was unable to knowingly scoop the grenade.

Based on that independent review, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates downgraded Peralta’s award from the Medal of Honor to the Navy Cross. Mr. Hunter led an effort to get Mr. Panetta, who succeeded Mr. Gates, to reverse the decision, but last December Mr. Panetta refused.

The refusal rankled Mr. Hunter, who said the eyewitness testimony should be good enough.

“We trusted our Marines to reclaim the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah and fight through Iraq and Afghanistan, and we should trust our Marines when they say that Sergeant Peralta pulled the grenade into his body,” Mr. Hunter said.

Now, with new Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel — who served as an enlisted man in the Vietnam War — at the Pentagon’s helm, Mr. Hunter has decided to try again.

He plans to resubmit the paperwork to try to get Mr. Hagel to revisit the decision, and has also introduced the resolution urging that the award be granted. The resolution has support from Sens. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, and Marco Rubio, Florida Republican. In the House, it has the support of more than two dozen lawmakers from both parties.

“Seven eyewitnesses confirmed that Sergeant Peralta smothered the grenade with his body, with four of the accounts, taken independently, stating that he gathered the grenade with his right arm,” the resolution reads, adding that “the historical standard for the Medal of Honor is two eyewitness accounts.”

In denying the medal last year, Mr. Panetta said there was still too much doubt based on the forensic evidence. Navy regulations say there must be “no margin of doubt or possibility of error” in awarding the Medal of Honor.

“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 in a letter to Mr. Hunter explaining the decision.

Peralta’s family at the time said they had not yet claimed the Navy Cross, and were still hoping for the higher Medal of Honor recognition.

Peralta’s case has become something of a cause for Mr. Hunter, who served tours as a Marine officer in both Afghanistan and Iraq before winning election to Congress.

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