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Defense chief: Standards not met for Marine Medal of Honor award

December 13, 2012 | 10:16 am

Rosa Peralta and daughter Karen at the grave of Rosa's son, Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

In rejecting a recommendation that Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said the evidence in the case falls short of the standards for the nation's highest medal for combat bravery.

Panetta, in a letter to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), noted that Navy regulations say there should be "no margin of doubt or possibility of error" in awarding the Medal of Honor, a higher standard of proof than for the Navy Cross, which Peralta was awarded for his actions during a fight in Fallouja, Iraq, in November 2004.

Still, Panetta referred to Peralta's "courageous sacrifice and faithful service" and said that "my heart goes out to the Peralta family."

Panetta added that the new evidence presented by Hunter was rejected by the Navy Board of Decorations and Medals as insufficient to merit overturning the 2008 decision made by Panetta's predecessor, Robert Gates, that Peralta be awarded the Navy Cross and not the Medal of Honor.

Peralta, 25, a Mexican immigrant who enlisted on the day that he received his "green card," was killed during a house-clearing mission.

Marines who were there have said that while he lay mortally wounded, Peralta reached out and smothered an enemy grenade, saving the lives of several Marines. The Marine Corps recommended Peralta for the Medal of Honor, as did the secretary of the Navy.

But an expert panel assembled by Gates recommended against the Medal of Honor, based on a medical opinion that Peralta had been killed instantly by friendly fire and could not have consciously smothered the grenade. Also, a pathologist report concluded that the grenade exploded one to three feet away from Peralta, not beneath his body.

Hunter had petitioned Panetta to overturn the Gates decision. He said documentary film not released when the original decision was made contradicts the pathologist's conclusion about the location of the grenade. Specifically, video of Peralta's body being taken from the house shows no leg wounds consistent with an explosion in such proximity.

Hunter announced Panetta's decision Wednesday after being notified by the general counsel for the Department of Defense. He released Panetta's letter Thursday.

Hunter said that while he appreciated Panetta's review of the case, he remains "beyond disappointed" by his decision.

That decision, Hunter said, "is a severe injustice, not just for Sgt. Peralta, but his family, his fellow Marines and anyone who has been willing to fight and die for their country."

Peralta's family was notified this week of Panetta's decision. Peralta's mother and two sisters live in San Diego; his brother Ricardo, now 21, enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2010, keeping a promise he made at his brother's funeral.

Peralta wrote a letter to his brother just days before his death, telling him, "I'm proud to be a Marine, a U.S. Marine, and to defend and protect the freedom and Constitution of America. You should be proud of being an American citizen."

The letter arrived the day the family was notified of Peralta's death.

Although disappointed that he did not receive the Medal of Honor, Peralta's family has been gratified by the reaction to his service and sacrifice.

"It's an honor: Everywhere we go, people come to us and say, 'Thank you for your brother's service,' " said Peralta's older sister, Icela Donald. "That's what he left us. He's not here physically but he left a legend for us to carry."

Peralta's younger sister, Karen, said the family was not surprised at his courageous actions in Fallouja.

"He was a generous person, always thinking of others," she said. "His fellow Marines were like his brothers. We just wish we had had a moment to say goodbye to him."

The family frequently visits Peralta's grave at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

"We come and tell him our thoughts," said Peralta's mother, Rosa, kneeling before a gravestone with the inscription, "Our Living Hero."

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-- Tony Perry

Photo: Rosa Peralta and daughter Karen at the grave of Rosa's son, Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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