Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Give Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta his Medal of Honor

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Commentator
March 1, 2014 -- Updated 0044 GMT (0844 HKT)
Marines in Sgt. Rafael Peralta's unit said they saw him pick up a grenade and hold it to his body.
Marines in Sgt. Rafael Peralta's unit said they saw him pick up a grenade and hold it to his body.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who died in Iraq, deserves the Medal of Honor
  • He says Peralta, by many accounts, smothered a grenade to save comrades
  • Some said Peralta, who was shot, couldn't have done it consciously
  • Navarrette: Many, including his comrades, think he deserves the medal

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

(CNN) -- Why only reach back to right a wrong from a half-century ago? Why not correct a travesty that is occurring right now?

I direct this question to President Barack Obama, who in March will award the Medal of Honor -- the nation's highest military honor for valor -- to a group of 24 veterans, only three still living, who should have been given the commendation decades ago. The men, who served over three wars, performed as heroes on the battlefield. But for 19 of the 24, the nation failed them. They had been passed over because of discrimination in the ranks.

The belated recognition is a wonderful gesture. But there is something more Obama should do.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

The nation owes a Medal of Honor to Sgt. Rafael Peralta, a 25-year-old Marine from San Diego who died on November 15, 2004, when, according to many accounts, he smothered a grenade in Falluja, Iraq. He came to the United States as an immigrant from Mexico, and joined the Marines on the day he received his green card.

Absorbing a grenade blast to save other soldiers is the very definition of valor. It all but guarantees the Medal of Honor.

This was true for three other heroes: 22-year-old Marine Cpl. Jason L. Dunham, who died this way on April 22, 2004, in Karabilah, Iraq; 19-year-old Army Pvt. Ross McGinnis, who died in Baghdad on December 4, 2006; and 25-year-old Navy SEAL Michael A. Monsoor, who died in Ramadi, Iraq, on September 29, 2006.

In Peralta's case, before the Marine covered the grenade, he had been shot in the head. And that fact fuels a debate.

There are those who believe that Peralta should not receive the Medal of Honor, claiming that the gunshot killed him instantly, and so he was already dead when he covered the grenade. That would make the smothering of the explosive an involuntary action that would not constitute heroism.

That group includes the last three secretaries of defense.

Recently, the Pentagon announced that it will not reopen the nomination for Peralta. According to a news release, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Defense Department concluded that the evidence did not meet the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard necessary for the Medal of Honor.

Nevertheless, many disagree. Those who think that Peralta should get the Medal of Honor acknowledge that the Marine sergeant was shot but, point to assertions by a neurologist, two neurosurgeons and the surgeon for Peralta's battalion that the bullet was traveling at such a low velocity that it did not kill him instantly. They assert that he was able to reach out, scoop up the grenade, and place it under his body. That it was a conscious decision to give up his life to save comrades, and that it does amount to heroism.

I've looked at this case for several years and written about it numerous times. I'm in Camp No.2. I believe Peralta deserves the Medal of Honor.

This is also the point of view of the entire California congressional delegation, which pushed the Pentagon for years to reopen the nomination. (Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, himself a Marine combat veteran who presumably knows a thing or two about valor, led the push.) And it's also the view of Texas pathologist Vincent Di Maio, an independent forensic expert who looked at the evidence and reached a different conclusion than the one arrived at by the Pentagon. And, it's the opinion of the Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Central Command.

Furthermore, it is also the point of view of the real experts on what happened that day in Falluja: Peralta's comrades in Alpha Company, most of who joined the campaign for the Medal of Honor. They were there. And they don't need some bureaucrat behind a desk in Washington or some political appointee to tell them what happened. They saw it with their own eyes. Initially, all seven said they witnessed Peralta scoop up the grenade and sacrifice himself, and that it's because of that act of valor that they came home to their families, to weddings and children's birthday parties and anniversaries

W.H. to bestow highest honor to 24 vets

But the Washington Post last week reported that two former Marines who were with Peralta on the day he died have broken ranks with their colleagues. At least one is recanting his earlier statements. The two former Marines claim that the narrative about what happened that day advanced by the other Marines is not true, and that it was concocted by the rest of the squad to honor Peralta's memory.

They insist that the grenade exploded near Peralta but not underneath him. One of the former Marines, 30-year-old Davi Allen, who was close enough to Peralta to be wounded in the blast, spent years advancing the other version, and now he claims the new version is the truth. Was he not telling the truth then, or is he not telling it now?

Both Rep. Hunter and the Peralta family have challenged the Washington Post article, which they insist contains inaccuracies and factual omissions. While admitting in a letter to the Post that the eyewitness accounts "have always differed," Hunter accused the newspaper of ignoring "the full body of evidence" and inaccurately describing the situation that day in Falluja. Moreover, according to Politico, the allegation that Peralta's fellow Marines concocted an alternate narrative had already been reported in the Marine Corps Times. Yet a colonel assigned to investigate the case found no evidence to back up that claim.

It comes down to whom you believe. This much everyone seems to agree on: Those in the Corps used to call Peralta "a Marine's Marine." It sounds like it.

There is one more member of the Peralta Fan Club, an expected one: The Pentagon. In 2008, as pressure started to mount, Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered the Peralta family a consolation prize: the Navy Cross. The citation read: "Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, Sgt. Peralta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body.

That's right -- the very thing that his supporters have insisted all along. So the Defense Department adopts different narratives depending on the commendation? That makes no sense.

The Peralta family turned down the Navy Cross, and held out for the Medal of Honor. It never came.

President Obama, you don't have to look back a half-century to find a miscarriage of justice in our armed forces. Here is a perfect example. Now, do the right thing, and give a hero the recognition he deserves.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT