Stolen Valor at the Highest Levels: The Case of Sgt. Rafael Peralta

At a young age, Rafael Peralta immigrated* to the United States and, as soon as he had his “green card,” he joined the U.S. military—just as I did.

While serving in the U.S. military, Sgt. Peralta earned his U.S. citizenship—just as I did.

But here is where the similarities end.

I went on to serve my country in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years in relatively safe and comfortable non-combat assignments. Today, I enjoy both the satisfaction and the fruits of having served my country.

This wasn’t to be for Peralta. After joining the U.S. Marine Corps, Sgt. Peralta deployed to Iraq where, at the young age of 25, he unselfishly and heroically gave his life for his newly adopted country.

As the record tells us, on November 14, 2004, Sgt. Peralta, a scout team leader with Company A, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment was participating in Operation AL FAJR, the U.S. military effort to retake Fallujah.

According to the citation accompanying the award of the Navy Cross, the service’s second highest award for heroism, to Sgt. Peralta:

Clearing scores of houses in the previous three days, Sergeant Peralta’ asked to join an under strength squad and volunteered to stand post the night of 14 November, allowing fellow Marines more time to rest. The following morning, during search and attack operations, while clearing the seventh house of the day, the point man opened a door to a back room and immediately came under intense, close-range automatic weapons fire from multiple insurgents. The squad returned fire, wounding one insurgent. While attempting to maneuver out of the line of fire, Sergeant Peralta was shot and fell mortally wounded. After the initial exchange of gunfire, the insurgents broke contact, throwing a fragmentation grenade as they fled the building. 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. Sergeant Peralta succumbed to his wounds. By his undaunted courage, intrepid fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty, Sergeant Peralta reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.

However, Sgt. Peralta had originally been nominated for the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest award for valor—as it should be.

The nomination was approved by the Commandant of the Marine Corps and by the Secretary of the Navy.

In December 2004, U.S. Congressman Bob Filner of California also introduced legislation to award Sgt. Peralta the Medal of Honor.

However, something very peculiar happened to Sgt. Peralta’s recommendation when it reached the Pentagon, and perhaps even at the White House.

Already back in 2005, just after Sgt. Peralta’s ultimate sacrifice and ultimate heroism, Rich Lowry appeared to have a premonition of things to come.

After describing Sgt. Peralta’s heroism, Lowry comments on National Review:

Kaemmerer [A Marine combat correspondent who witnessed the events at Fallujah] compares Peralta’s sacrifice to that of past Marine Medal of Honor winners Pfc. James LaBelle and Lance Cpl. Richard Anderson. LaBelle dove on a Japanese grenade to save two fellow Marines during the battle of Iwo Jima. Although he had just been wounded twice, Anderson rolled over an enemy grenade to save a fellow Marine during a 1969 battle in Vietnam.

And, “Peralta’s sacrifice should be a legend in the making. But somehow heroism doesn’t get the same traction in our media environment as being a victim or villain…”

As it turned out, Sgt. Peralta’s sacrifice and heroism did get an awful lot of “traction” in the media. Regrettably and shamefully, they did not get the necessary traction at the Pentagon and at the Bush White House.

We may never know exactly what went awry at the Pentagon, or at the White House. But we know all too well the sad conclusion to this chapter.

On September 17, 2008, Rafael Peralta’s family was notified by U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Richard Natonski that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had rejected the Marine Corps’ recommendation for Sgt. Peralta to receive the Medal of Honor. Instead, Peralta would be receiving the Navy Cross.

Incredibly, Gates’ appointed panel unanimously claimed that Peralta’s actions did not meet the standard of “without any possibility of error or doubt”. The central argument was as to whether the already critically wounded Peralta could have intentionally reached for the grenade, shielding his fellow Marines from the blast with his own body.

However, in a Marine Corps investigation of the attack, Lt. Gen. Natonski says, “I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that the gravely wounded Peralta covered the grenade.”

As mentioned, there has been a huge outcry at this injustice, by fellow Marines, the media, elected officials, the American people and, naturally, by Sgt. Peralta’s family, who refused to accept the Navy Cross.

So, while this chapter may be closed, the book is not.

When Gates’ decision was announced, members of California’s congressional delegation, including Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, implored President Bush to review and reverse Gates’ unfortunate decision.

Numerous other groups and individuals have petitioned the former president and continue to petition the current president to review and reverse Gates’ decision.

After president Obama’s inauguration, U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R. Ca., son of Duncan L. Hunter, and a former Marine officer who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, sent a letter to president Obama raising the case of Peralta.

The letter said, in part:

I am very concerned that the criteria for awarding the Medal of Honor, which has been historically based on eyewitness accounts, has now been replaced by modern forensic science…

I firmly believe that eyewitness accounts of the event should take precedent through the entire chain of command review process because heroic actions in combat cannot always be explained by science alone.

A week before, Hunter and other California U.S. Senators and Representatives had petitioned Obama to order a review of the Peralta matter.

In addition to the “forensics” issue, there are other controversies surrounding the Peralta case.

A recent Air Force Times article, “Death before this honor,” that was very critical of the Bush administration’s abominable record in recognizing our Iraq-Afghanistan war heroes (only five Medals of Honor were awarded by that administration—all posthumously), points out the following:

After Sgt. Rafael Peralta was denied the Medal of Honor in 2008 — a case that drew heavy scrutiny, including use of forensic evidence — questions were raised about whether Peralta’s onetime status as an illegal immigrant played a part in the decision.

(I have written extensively on the Bush administration’s deplorable record on Medals of Honor for our heroes. For example, here.)

A few years ago, our government wisely passed and recently strengthened the “Stolen Valor Act.” This legislation is designed to penalize those who sell phony military medals and decorations, and those who fraudulently claim to be decorated veterans, especially those “who falsely claim to have risked their lives for our country, restoring honor to those who have truly earned it.”

The author of this legislation, Colorado Congressman John T. Salazar, has said:

Medals recognize the best American qualities – courage, honor, and sacrifice. These honors are reserved for those who willingly risked their lives for our country. The Medal of Honor is our nation’s highest military honor…It is our job to protect the honor and integrity of our veterans, to make sure the memory of their heroism is not tarnished.

What a shame that the very same government that aims to prevent the stealing of honors from heroes who have rightly earned them, seems intent—at the highest levels—on stealing a most legitimately earned honor from another hero, based on disputed and refuted “forensic evidence,” or worse.

* Peralta was originally from Mexico

Medals of Honor Image, Courtesy Air Force Times

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

Share This Post On

8 Comments

  1. So, has Obama ordered a review, or is this information we won't have unless/until the review overturns the previous decision?

  2. As far as we know, no review has been ordered yet.

    Let us hope that sufficient outrage and pressure by Americans will lead to that move–and, subsequently, to the Medal of Honor.

    Dorian

  3. i definately think he should be awarded the MoH.

  4. “Gates’ appointed panel unanimously claimed that Peralta’s actions did not meet the standard of “without any possibility of error or doubt”.”
    So then, the testament from each one of those Marines that were in that room and that were spared life and limb due to Peralta's selfless act when the nade blew up under him cannot be trusted or taken as fact. That's a class act.
    To me it seems that it's all a bunch of BS on the part of Gates and his appointed panel by not giving Marine Peralta the MoH he deserves for what he did that day that most likely shredded him. I guess Peralta's life's story and or looks are not romantic enough or marketable enough for the lot of chicken hawks that Gates and his boys are.
    “What A Wonderful World…”

  5. Id like to see gates and his panel clearing rooms in AL FAJR!

  6. Sgt. Peralta deserved the MoH for that act. Politicians, Like Gates and his Panel, dont have the slightest clue on what really goes on in war. They were not there when Peralta cushioned that grenade. They were not in Iwo Jima or Vietnam when those other guys cushioned grenades for the comrades, so should there MoH's b taken from them as whell? no they shouldnt, and neither should have Peralta's. I Agree heavily with m80 above me. i would like to see them clearing rooms, or i mean running away in fear from insurgents. I give major props for the men and women who serve our country. I salute everyone who serves in the military and so should everyone else. INCLUDING POLITICIANS!!!!!!!!!! Hoorah!!!!!!! to them all and Semper Fidelis!!!!

  7. Thanks for all the recent comments

    Dorian de Wind

  8. As an ex-soldier, and friend too many still serving in all branches of the military, I have to say that this is truly an atrocity that is being committed by our elected officials. However, I noticed that there may be some underlying political tones criticizing George W. Bush and his administration for the MOH not being awarded to SGT Rafael Peralta. Now, it has been my understanding that the MOH is awarded by Congress and not the President of the United States. The official name is “The Congressional Medal Of Honor” and the President signs off on the honor after it has been approved by congress and is presented to the soldier or soldier’s family by the president. Six Hundred Twenty out of Three Thousand four hundred sixty-seven MOH awardees have given their lives in the line of duty and the fact that it has only been awarded posthumously four times during Bush's administration is not a black mark. I am not a George W freak in anyway, and from what I have read about SGT Peralta's story, he is being done a great injustice. I do think, however, that blame for this should fall squarely on the shoulders of our congress and the elected officials that make up the committee that approves the MOH. If I am wrong, please correct me.

Submit a Comment