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Posted by on May 2, 2009 in War | 8 comments

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

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