Marine killed in Iraq to be honored with Navy Cross, not Medal of Honor

Tired of controversy, family will accept Navy Cross for Marine killed in Iraq

Reluctantly, the family of a Marine from San Diego who was killed in Iraq has agreed to accept a Navy Cross on his behalf, rather than the Medal of Honor they and the Marine Corps believe he deserves.

The family of Sgt. Rafael Peralta has agreed to accept the Navy Cross out of a sense of weariness with the controversy involving his death, according to Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine). A ceremony is being scheduled for Camp Pendleton.

Hunter, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine officer, has campaigned in favor of the Medal of Honor for Peralta.

"The fight to upgrade the award will continue when the time is right, and I'll be honored to lead that fight," Hunter said Friday. "But the difference between the Navy Cross and Medal of Honor doesn't change the fact that Rafael Peralta is a Marine Corps legend and hero."

Peralta was 25 when he was killed Nov. 15, 2004, in Fallouja. He was among Marines ordered to clear houses of heavily armed and barricaded insurgents. Peralta had volunteered for the mission and was the first Marine into the house.

As Marines stormed inside, Peralta was mortally wounded, possibly by friendly fire.

Marines who were there insist that, as he lay dying, Peralta reached out and scooped up an enemy grenade, absorbing the blast and saving the lives of fellow Marines. On that basis, Marine brass nominated Peralta for the nation's highest medal for combat bravery.

But pathologists decided that Peralta could not have acted voluntarily, that he was already clinically dead and any actions were the involuntary spasms of a lifeless body. That finding has been hotly disputed.

Then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wrote in his memoir that he initially approved the Medal of Honor for Peralta but rescinded his decision after a protest from the department of Defense's inspector general. Instead he awarded the Navy Cross.

Hunter appealed to Gates' successors Leon Panetta and then Chuck Hagel. In 2014, Hagel upheld decisions by Panetta and Gates, noting that awarding the Medal of Honor must be based on "proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

Peralta, an immigrant from Mexico, enlisted on the day he received his green card. From Iraq, he wrote letters to his younger brother, Ricardo, urging him to have pride in their adopted country.

Ricardo enlisted in the Marines in 2010 to honor a promise made to his brother at his funeral. He deployed to Afghanistan. Rafael is buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, where his grave is kept fresh with flowers left by family members and Marines.

Peralta's mother, Rosa, lives in Chula Vista, in a home purchased with his life insurance. When he enlisted, the family lived in San Diego.

At the Marine boot camp in San Diego, recruits are told of Peralta in a lecture about Marine heroes.

The family plans to donate the Navy Cross for display in a Navy destroyer under construction to be named the Rafael Peralta.

For more San Diego area news, follow @LATsandiego. 

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

This post was updated at 7:02 a.m. to add a quote from Rep. Duncan Hunter. It was originally published at 6:46 a.m.

58°