In a ceremony Monday redolent of sadness mixed with pride, the family of Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta accepted the Navy Cross that was posthumously awarded to him for his bravery in Fallouja, Iraq, in 2004.
Peralta's mother, Rosa, dabbed at her tears as she accepted the medal from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who praised her son as a patriotic Marine. Mabus said that Peralta's dying act was to save the lives of his fellow Marines by smothering an enemy grenade during a furious, close-in firefight.
"Thank you to the family of this American hero," Mabus said.
Mabus made no mention of the near decade-long controversy about what medal Peralta should get. Peralta, a Mexican immigrant who enlisted the day that he got his green card, was 25 when he was killed.
For years, family members had declined to accept the Navy Cross out of a belief that Peralta deserved the Medal of Honor. But the fight wore them down, and they recently reluctantly reversed their decision.
The Department of Defense initially recommended the higher award but then rescinded that decision after an investigation into whether he was alive at the moment of the reported heroism.
Staff Sgt. Adam Morrison said he remains convinced that Peralta, while dying, voluntarily reached out to smother a grenade.
"Because of Rafael Peralta, I'm here today," said Morrison, 30, who was injured in the explosion of that grenade. "Because of Rafael Peralta, my father is now the grandfather to three boys."
The awarding of the Navy Cross is based on the testimony of Morrison and four other Marines who were with Peralta and said that his actions were voluntary.
The Marines had burst into a home where insurgents were heavily barricaded and waiting. Peralta, taking the lead, was immediately shot. The insurgents, breaking contact, hurled a grenade that landed near where Peralta lay dying.
"The grenade came to rest near Sgt. Peralta's head," according to the citation. "Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own safety, Sgt. Peralta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast and shielding fellow Marines only feet away."
The Marine Corps, famously stingy in awarding medals to its combat troops, investigated the incident and nominated Peralta for the Medal of Honor.
The Department of Defense, reviewing the nomination, including medical evidence, initially recommended the award. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates agreed.
But then an investigator for the Department of Defense inspector general protested that the nomination seemed based on the debatable conclusion that Peralta was still alive when the grenade landed near his body.
In a rare, if not unprecedented, move, Gates rescinded his decision in 2008 after forming a task force, including pathologists and retired officers, to review the case. Pathologists reviewing the case decided that Peralta was probably clinically dead and any actions were involuntary.
The task force concluded that, given the disputed medical evidence, the Medal of Honor was not warranted. The Navy Cross, with a lesser burden of evidence, was recommended instead.
The decision infuriated the Marines and emotionally devastated the Peralta family. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) tried unsuccessfully to get Gates' two successors to overturn the ruling. He says he may try again with now-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter "when the time is right."
Peralta's brother, Ricardo, who enlisted in the Marines to honor his brother, told the several hundred Marines and guests at the award ceremony that his brother "is missed but not forgotten." His story is told to boot camp recruits and a Navy destroyer will be named for him.
Rafael went to Iraq as his brother, Ricardo Peralta said, "and he returned as a legend."