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On anniversary of Iraq war, legislators petition for Medal of Honor for Marine

March 19, 2013 | 11:50 am

Sgt. Rafael Peralta's mother, Rosa, and sister, Karen, at his grave at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego.

On the 10th anniversary of the start of U.S.-led operations in Iraq, a bipartisan group of legislators in Washington submitted a resolution calling for the Medal of Honor to be awarded to Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta of San Diego, killed in Iraq in 2004.

The effort is led by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida).

Hunter said that Peralta "is a hero, not just to the men who witnessed him do the unthinkable but also to the Marine Corps and all others who value the courage and sacrifice of America's military."

Becerra said Peralta's story "is the epitome of what makes America great, generation after generation."

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

Just days before his death, Peralta wrote a letter to his brother, 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 in San Diego was notified of Peralta’s death. His brother later enlisted in the Marine Corps.

Marines who were with Peralta have said that while he lay mortally wounded, he 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 then-Defense Secretary Robert M. 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 1 to 3 feet away from Peralta, not beneath his body. Gates in 2008 accepted the recommendation that Peralta be posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.

Hunter, a Marine officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, petitioned Gates' successor Leon Panetta to overturn 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.

But in December, Panetta declined to overrule Gates, saying there can be no doubt about the facts when awarding the nation's highest award for combat bravery.

Hunter and other supporters of Peralta hope that Panetta's successor, former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, might have a different view of Peralta's actions given Hagel's combat experience as an Army infantry soldier in Vietnam.

Of 4,486 U.S. service personnel killed in Iraq, 1,022 were Marines, according to the independent website www.icasualties.org.

Among U.S. military bases, the Army's Fort Hood had the highest number killed (509) in Iraq, followed by Camp Pendleton with 345 Marines and sailors killed. The Marine base at Twentynine Palms had 115 Marines and sailors killed during the war that lasted more than eight years.

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--Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Sgt. Rafael Peralta's mother, Rosa, and sister, Karen, at his grave at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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