THE BLOG

Is Justice About to Be Done in the Case of Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta?

03/02/2012 03:59 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2012

I -- and others -- have called it "Stolen Valor at the Highest Levels," "The Medal of Honor: Too Few and Too Late," "Death before this honor" and while some may still call it a case where justice delayed is justice denied, I hope that we may be able to finally claim, "Justice was done."

It all started more than seven years ago -- on November 14, 2004 -- when a young Marine Corps Sergeant, Rafael Peralta, a scout team leader with Company A, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, was participating in Operation AL FAJR, the bloody U.S. military effort to retake Fallujah, Iraq.

According to the citation that should have merited the award of the Medal of Honor, this is what Peralta did on the battlefields of Iraq:

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.

Because of his heroic acts, Sgt. Peralta was nominated for the Medal of Honor, our nation's highest award for valor, by the Commandant of the Marine Corps and by the Secretary of the Navy.

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

Neurosurgeons and pathologists claimed that Peralta's sweeping a grenade under his body to protect his fellow Marines may not have been a deliberate act because his head wound was so severe that he could not have made a deliberate decision to reach for the grenade. This, even though fellow Marines who were there made official statements that "they saw [Peralta] reach for the grenade and that they believed he saved the lives of at least four men in doing so" and even though this issue was investigated during the Medal of Honor nomination process and Marine Lt. General Richard F. Natonski, stuck with his recommendation: "I believe Sergeant Peralta made a conscious, heroic decision to cover the grenade and minimize the effects he knew it would have on the rest of his Marine team."

There have also been reports that the award of such decorations has been "politicized" or worse: "After Sgt. Rafael Peralta was denied the Medal of Honor in 2008, questions were raised about whether Peralta's onetime status as an illegal immigrant played a part in the decision." (Peralta came to the U.S. from Mexico at a very young age, as an undocumented immigrant. As soon as he had his "green card," he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, earned his U.S. citizenship and was soon deployed to Iraq)

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 Marine Lt. Gen. 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, the 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.

Naturally, 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.

Numerous attempts have been made by influential officials to support the Medal of Honor award, both under President Bush and now under President Obama.

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

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

In September 2009, the Hawaii House of Representatives passed a Concurrent Resolution "strongly urging the Secretary of Defense and the President of the United States to award Sgt. Rafael Peralta the Medal of Honor."

About three years ago, writing about this injustice I said, "So, while this chapter may be closed, the book is not."

Well, today that book has been reopened.

Julie Watson at the Associated Press reports:

Federal lawmakers announced Thursday they have obtained information previously unavailable to military investigators that proves the Navy should not have disqualified a San Diego Marine from being posthumously awarded America's highest military honor.

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter said his office sent a formal request from the area's congressional delegation to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus urging him to reconsider Sgt. Rafael Peralta for the Medal of Honor in a last-ditch effort before the deadline ends. Four other San Diego-area representatives and California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer also signed the letter.

According to the A.P., Congressman Hunter has "obtained a video of the battle action and a newly released report by a forensic pathologist that proves Peralta was conscious and intentionally pulled the grenade under his body ... information [that] was previously unavailable to military investigators and reaffirms 'just how wrong Secretary Gates and his panel were in reaching their decision.'"

According to the A.P. the Navy secretary's spokeswoman has said in an e-mail to the A.P. that "Secretary Mabus' strong support of Sgt. Rafael Peralta is a matter of record," and that Mabus had recommended Peralta be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, but Gates did not agree.

While appreciating the Navy's intention to name a destroyer after Sgt. Peralta, the California lawmakers in their letter to Mabus say: "Giving Sgt. Peralta the last measure of recognition he deserves, by awarding him the Medal of Honor, would go a long way towards strengthening the integrity of the awards process."

Perhaps justice is about to be done.