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IRAQ: Marine sergeant killed in battle awarded Navy Cross, not Medal of Honor

September 17, 2008 |  6:37 pm

An immigrant from Mexico, Rafael Peralta enlisted in the Marine Corps the day after he received his green card in 2000. He adorned his bedroom at his parents' home in San Diego with copies of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights and a picture of his boot camp graduation class.

PeraltaAnd as he waited for combat in Fallouja, he wrote to his teenage brother: "You should be proud of being an American. Our father came to this country  because it was the right place for our family to be. If anything happens to me, just remember I've already lived my life to the fullest."

On Nov. 15, 2004, the 25-year-old sergeant volunteered for dangerous duty assisting an under-strength squad in clearing heavily armed insurgents from barricaded houses. As the squad rushed into one house, Peralta was wounded in the crossfire and knocked to the ground.

An insurgent rolled a grenade toward the Marines. Peralta, laying on the ground, reached out and grabbed the grenade, using his body to shield his fellow Marines from the blast, according to Marines who were there. He saved four squad members, maybe more, at the cost of his life.

On Wednesday, Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter announced that Peralta will be posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor for combat bravery by Marines.

Peralta acted "without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own safety," Winter said. Peralta is the 18th Marine to receive the Navy Cross for Iraq or Afghanistan.

Peralta had been nominated by the Marines for the Medal of Honor. But that recommendation was not accepted by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, without explanation. The decision disappointed Peralta's mother, Rosa, who told reporters she may not accept the Navy Cross.

A Marine general visited with the family before the announcement was made. The decision also angered Marines who served with Peralta.

As it announced the decision to award him the Navy Cross, the Marine Corps also revealed that the bullet that felled Peralta was probably friendly fire but insisted that fact played no role in the award decision. Only one Marine has been awarded the Medal of Honor for the current conflicts, a fact that has upset many Marines.

Peralta's bravery has made him a virtual legend among Marines, with the story repeated to recruits in boot camp and Marines deployed to warzones. He was the subject of a History Channel documentary, "Act of Honor," broadcast in English and Spanish.

In his 2005 Memorial Day remarks, President Bush praised Peralta's bravery, saying that he "understood that America faces dangerous enemies, and he knew the sacrifices required to defeat them."

UPDATE: The military on Thursday released information suggesting that Peralta was not awarded the Medal of Honor because there is conflicting medical evidence about whether he died instantly from the gunshot and therefore could not have voluntarily smothered the grenade as his fellow Marines insist and as the Navy Cross citation says.

The nation's highest medal must be based on incontrovertible facts, officials said.

— Tony Perry, in San Diego

Photo: Sgt. Rafael Peralta. Credit: Marine Corps

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