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Lawmaker renews push for Marine killed in Iraq fight to receive Medal of Honor

Lawmaker renews push for Marine killed in Iraq fight to receive Medal of Honor
Fellow Marines said Sgt. Rafael Peralta, mortally wounded by a shot to the head, grabbbed an enemy grenade to shield them, but medical experts said it was probably an unconscious act. (U.S. Navy)

Rep. Duncan Hunter is pushing again for the late Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta to be recognized with the Medal of Honor, timing his request to a broader review of whether certain combat-valor medal recipients should have their awards upgraded.

Hunter (R-Alpine) on Thursday wrote to the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller, asking that he submit a new nomination for Peralta to get the nation's highest distinction for combat bravery. Hunter has been a major voice in the protracted controversy over whether Peralta's wartime actions in Iraq have been undervalued.

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"It is my hope that the Marine Corps will continue to support Peralta" for higher recognition, Hunter wrote. Neller's office said its policy was to not publicly discuss such correspondence.

Rosa Peralta accepts the Navy Cross on behalf of her son, Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, at Camp Pendleton in June 2015.
Rosa Peralta accepts the Navy Cross on behalf of her son, Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, at Camp Pendleton in June 2015. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

Peralta's family accepted the Navy Cross — the second-highest medal — on his behalf in June after having refused to do so for years. On Saturday, his younger brother, Rick Peralta, said the family had no comment "on this extremely difficult situation."

Rafael Peralta, 25, was an infantry rifleman with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.

On Nov. 15, 2004, the Marines were clearing houses of enemy fighters in Fallujah, Iraq. After breachers kicked in the door to a building, Peralta and his squad walked into a back room and encountered "intense, close-range automatic weapons fire from multiple insurgents," according to his Navy Cross citation.

As the Marines returned fire, Peralta fell to the ground, mortally wounded from a gunshot to the head. The insurgents threw an enemy fragmentation grenade as they fled. When it landed by Peralta, he "reached out and pulled the grenade to this body, absorbing the brunt of the blast," the citation said.

The Marine Corps and Navy Department recommended the Medal of Honor based on eyewitness accounts by fellow Marines, the traditional standard of proof.

However, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided against it after a panel of forensic and medical experts determined that Peralta probably was too gravely wounded to have acted consciously.

The Navy Department, citing its own investigations and medical opinions, authorized the Navy Cross in 2008, the highest medal that branch can give without Pentagon approval. It also chose to name a destroyer warship after Peralta.

Two more defense secretaries after Gates have rejected appeals by members of Congress to give Peralta the Medal of Honor.

This month, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford told the DoDLive blog that he believed Peralta's heroism merited the medal.

Dunford, who now serves as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke in the interview about Defense Secretary Ash Carter's recent request for the Pentagon to review all recommendations made since Sept. 11, 2001, for service cross awards — including the Navy Cross — and the Silver Star.

The stated goal is to see whether the military has been using consistent standards in evaluating nominations.

Phan writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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