Nov. 15, 2004: It’s the second battle of Fallujah, and although they don’t really know it yet, the Marines and soldiers involved are enduring the worst combat since Vietnam.
“Be proud of me, bro,” Rafael Peralta writes his 14-year-old brother shortly before going there. ” … and be proud of being an American.”
There with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines is 25-year-old Sgt. Rafael Peralta, an immigrant from Mexico who enlisted in the Marine Corps the day he received his green card, and he’s about to save four Marines from going to their grave.
Leading an assault team during house-to-house fighting, Peralta is the first through the door. The sergeant instantly takes fire, is hit in the chest and head at close range, and falls to the floor as insurgents toss a grenade and flee.
But before he takes his last breath and without hesitation, the dying Marine — as he was taught at boot camp and knew many before him had done — reaches out, grabs the grenade that would surely kill every man in the room, brings it tight into his body, and absorbs the impact.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with you at this time of need,” reads a tribute at the Fallen Heroes Memorial many years later. “Rafael is a TRUE HERO. Rest in Peace Rafael.”
” … del Sargento Rafael Peralta mis mas grandes condolencias y una enorme gratitud y respeto por el gran ser humano que fue su hijo Dios los bendiga y les de muchas fuerzas y resignacion,” reads another.
Peralta dies on that day. Four other Marines do not.
For that action — shielding brothers-in-arms from an enemy grenade — Marines, soldiers, and sailors of the past have received the nation’s highest honour: The Medal of Honour.
Peralta receives only the nation’s second-highest award — the Navy Cross. Why?
The Marine Corps recommended him for the Medal of Honour in 2008. His award recommendation went to the highest levels — going all the way up to Defence Secretary Robert Gates. Before even putting eyes on that paper, at least two other witnesses had written sworn statements attesting to Peralta’s heroism, a full-page summary of action was investigated and written by a company-grade officer or above of what transpired, and then it was signed off and forwarded up the chain by a general officer.
There was only one more level — the president — but with Gates’ signature, it was pretty much a slam dunk.
He said yes.
“I was satisfied that Sergeant Peralta met all the criteria and deserved the Medal of Honour,” Gates wrote in his endorsement.
And then, almost as quickly as the paper had been signed — the order was rescinded.
Soon after, Gates wrote, he learned of a complaint made to the Defence Department Inspector General that alleged Peralta could not have acted consciously to cover the grenade and save fellow Marines’ lives. Forensic evidence shows Peralta had been hit in the head by a ricocheting bullet fragment that some argue would have incapacitated him prior to the grenade blast. The IG said it planned to carry out an investigation unless Gates personally took action to address the concerns, he wrote.
“I decided that the only way to clear the air quietly was to ask a special panel to look into the allegation,” he wrote.
Four years after the event, eyewitness testimony from Marines on the ground was trumped by a panel of medical professionals and subject matter experts far removed from that day, who concluded “unanimously that, with his wounds, Peralta could not have consciously pulled the grenade under him.”
Who is telling the truth?
Is it Cpl. Travis Kaemmerer, the now-deceased combat correspondent who was there that day and later told of his incredible exploits?
“I watched in fear and horror as the other four Marines scrambled to the corners of the room and the majority of the blast was absorbed by Peralta’s now lifeless body,” Kaemmerer said. “His selflessness left four other Marines with only minor injuries from smaller fragments of the grenade.”
Is it the independent review panel?
“The medical and forensic evidence indicated that the grenade did not detonate beneath the body of Sgt. Peralta,” the panel wrote.
Or is it Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), who has been pushing for an upgrade to Peralta’s award?
“Since Peralta was right handed, therefore carrying the rifle on his right side, the damage to the weapon is consistent with the assertion that the grenade detonated underneath Peralta’s left side torso, with the weapon near, but not directly covering the grenade,” Hunter wrote in a recent letter to Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, accompanied by a photo of his shrapnel-laced M-16. “An additional photo shows the damaged bullets retrieved from Peralta’s weapon.”
Today, no one is really sure.
Posthumously, Rafael Peralta is an honorary San Diego police officer. His name is now synonymous with a U.S. Navy destroyer. Marines of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit walk into “Peralta Hall” as they enter their command post.
And he has received the Navy Cross.
But therein lies the paradox.
As the nation’s second-highest award, much like the Medal of Honour, the Navy Cross isn’t just given out to anyone. Before the award is issued, great pains and a lengthy investigation take place to ensure its integrity.
From Peralta’s citation (emphasis added):
For extraordinary heroism while serving as Platoon Guide with 1st Platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 3d Marines, Regimental Combat Team 7, 1st Marine Division, in action against Anti-Coalition Forces in support of Operation AL FAJR, in Fallujah, Iraq on 15 November 2004. 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 manoeuvre 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.
Two defence secretaries — Gates and Panetta — have denied an upgrade of his award to the Medal of Honour. Will a third, under increasing pressure, do the same?
“If you do the right thing on Peralta, it will show the military that, hey, we can do the Medal of Honour process properly,” Rep. Hunter told The Washington Times.
Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta was shot but was still able to pull that grenade into his body and became an incredible hero to four Marines in 2004. Or he was shot and accidentally fell on a grenade, and four Marines just miraculously survived.
Here’s the elephant in the room: He’s either a hero worthy of the nation’s highest honour, or unfortunately, he’s just one of 95 Americans killed in the battle.
“Sergeant Peralta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body,” reads part of the Navy Cross award citation for Peralta.
That statement does not leave room for any doubt.
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