Ten years after a 2004 firefight in Iraq, Sgt. Rafael Peralta’s death continues to ignite controversy, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week refusing to reopen his nomination for the Medal of Honor and the Marine’s family accusing a newspaper of race-baiting in its reporting on the standoff.
Peralta’s mother, Rosa, said in a letter this week that a reporter for The Washington Post seemed intent on trying to get her to say her son was denied the Medal of Honor because he was Hispanic.
Some Marines who were on duty with Peralta on Nov. 15, 2004, the day he and his squad were clearing houses in Fallujah, were stunned that their comrades were now saying the story that Peralta scooped a grenade to himself, saving a number of Marines’ lives, was a concocted lie.
“If you’re trying to smear the legacy of a Marine who’s a hero, who saved my life, then you’re barking up the wrong … tree,” said Nicholas Jones, one of the Marines in the room when insurgents tossed the grenade toward the troops.
Peralta received the Navy Cross for his actions, but his supporters — including Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who also served as a Marine officer in Fallujah during the Iraq War — say he deserves the Medal of Honor.
Mr. Hagel last week became the third defense secretary to reject the Medal of Honor for Peralta.
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“The Department of Defense has taken extraordinary measures to ensure Sgt. Peralta’s nomination received full consideration. Three separate secretaries of defense have now examined the case, and each independently concluded the evidence does not support award of the Medal of Honor,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
Soon after that decision, The Post published an extensive report on Peralta. Two Marines told the paper that the heroic story of the sergeant covering the grenade himself, absorbing the blast and shielding his comrades, is a lie.
“It has always bugged me,” Davi Allen, a Marine who was wounded in the grenade blast and who said it wasn’t underneath Peralta, told the newspaper. “I knew it’s not the truth. But who wants to be the one to tell a family: ‘Your son was not a hero’?”
Details of that day have been debated extensively.
As the Marines entered one room of a Fallujah house they were trying to clear, they encountered insurgents lying in wait. As the insurgents opened fire, Peralta was shot in the head and fell to the ground. The other Marines returned fire, and one of the insurgents threw a grenade toward them.
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More than a dozen witnesses say the sergeant, lying on the ground, scooped the grenade underneath himself, absorbing the blast and saving the lives of the men with him.
Mr. Allen, though, told The Post that the grenade exploded near — but not underneath — Peralta. Reggie Brown, a Marine who was outside of the house after the fight, said he remembers a Marine suggesting a way to honor Peralta by saying he dived on the grenade.
The citation the government issued for Peralta’s Navy Cross seems to agree with the long-accepted version.
“The grenade came to rest near Sergeant Peralta’s head. Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, Sergeant Peralta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast and shielding fellow Marines only feet away,” the citation reads.
Peralta’s supporters say that heroic action, based on the eyewitnesses’ accounts, usually would be enough to earn the Medal of Honor.
But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates convened a special review that questioned the medical evidence, concluding that Peralta was brain-dead at the time of the grenade blast. Even if Peralta scooped the grenade, the conclusions say, it wasn’t done consciously.
Mr. Gates rejected the award of the Medal of Honor. His successor, Secretary Leon E. Panetta, and now Mr. Hagel have refused to reopen the nomination.
But Peralta has been honored repeatedly. He was awarded the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor for a Marine, and the Navy announced in 2012 that it was naming a destroyer after him. Peralta’s M-16 now sits in storage at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
Support for Peralta
Mr. Jones, one of the Marines who insists Peralta saved his life, said he was shocked at The Post report and dismissed the claims of other Marines that details of the story were fabricated.
“I think it’s just ridiculous that these guys that didn’t even see it in the first place come out and try to stir up a bunch of controversy,” he told The Washington Times. “People in the room have never changed their story. They’ve never went back and said anything was different, and there’s absolutely no humanly possible way any story was concocted.”
The Times talked with another Marine in the room that day who said he was alive because Peralta swept the grenade underneath himself, and a combat photographer who was following Peralta’s unit that day and whose video of the aftermath showed Peralta with injuries consistent with a grenade blast.
Mr. Jones said The Post reporter asked him “one-sided questions” and that the paper didn’t look over all of the physical evidence.
In a three-page letter to The Post, Mr. Hunter, the congressman who has taken up Peralta’s cause, laid out a number of details of physical evidence and inconsistencies in the accounts of the Marines who are now questioning the story.
Among those are the video shot by the combat photographer showing the aftermath of the fight and Peralta’s body, with wounds consistent with the original story and contrary to what the dissenting Marines now claim. The video also covers the period when the story would have been concocted, but there is no evidence of any such discussion, Mr. Hunter said.
Mr. Hunter also pointed to pictures of Peralta’s body armor, which ended up with a fragment of the grenade fuse embedded in it, which he said was consistent with the initial story.
The congressman said all of that evidence was provided to The Post’s reporter, Ernesto Londono.
The reporter referred questions from The Washington Times to a company spokeswoman, Kristine Coratti, who did not address the concerns Mr. Hunter raised.
“The Washington Post stands by the story,” she said.
She also said it was “absolutely untrue” that the reporter tried to bait the family into blaming race for the denial of a Medal of Honor.
Peralta’s mother, Rosa, and his brother, Ricardo, made that accusation in a letter they wrote to Mr. Hunter, which he forwarded to The Post.
“During the phone interview, this reporter had begun asking questions about her son Rafael Peralta, my mom answered his questions but this reporter began harassing my mother and changing her words as to making him come off as some sort of punk,” the two said in their letter.
“She felt that by his words that he was trying to force her into making statements that he wanted to hear. He tried to get me to pull the ‘race card’ as to being the reason for the denial of the Medal of Honor on three separate occasions of the interview,” the two Peraltas wrote.
In a separate letter, George Sabga, a spokesman for the family, wrote The Post reporter laying out several objections to the report including the claim that Peralta was an illegal immigrant.
He reiterated the charge that the reporter repeatedly asked about race, even after Mrs. Peralta’s initial rejection that her son’s Mexican ancestry was involved in the decision-making.
“Instead of accepting these responses, you continued along this line of questioning by changing the wording of your questions. I find it ironic that the mother of a fallen Marine has more honor and integrity than a reporter for the Washington Post,” Mr. Sabga wrote. He demanded a public apology.
Mr. Jones, the Marine who was in the Fallujah room that day, said he believes Peralta deserves the Medal of Honor and that the evidence supports that, but he added that he understands Mr. Hagel’s decision.
“Either way, there is a shred of doubt, and I understand it,” he said.
“Honestly, it’s not going to matter either way. Whether he gets the medal or doesn’t get the medal, his story is out there, it’s a true … story,” he said. “If anybody wants to dispute that, they can come find me. My address is listed.”