Monday, January 6, 2014

Secretary Chuck Hagel is considering Medal of Honor for Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta

Department of Defense is giving Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta's actions another round of consideration for the Medal of Honor. Peralta saved the lives of fellow Marines before he was killed by a grenade blast in Iraq in 2004. (Marine Corps)

Rafael Peralta, a Marine sergeant who saved the lives of fellow Marines before he was killed by a grenade blast in Iraq in 2004 may get another look for the Medal of Honor.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., wrote to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Oct. 22 to ask for a re-examination of Peralta's award decision, based on video evidence, pathology reports and other supporting evidence. The congressman has just received a call from the defense secretary, Hunter spokesman Joe Kasper said on Dec. 4.

"He is looking at (the petition), and he is looking at it very seriously," Kasper said.

Defense Department Assistant Press Secretary Carl Woog told The San Diego Union-Tribune that "Secretary Hagel is familiarizing himself with the history of the case so that he may appropriately respond to Rep. Hunter's letter."

Hagel has not formally reopened Peralta's case, however, a defense official said.

The Marine Corps recommended Peralta for the military's highest valor award, crediting him with covering a grenade with his body to save the lives of fellow Marines. Then, Secretary Robert Gates questioned the evidence that Peralta had acted consciously to absorb the blast because he had also received a ricocheting rifle round to the head. Peralta was instead posthumously awarded the Navy Cross in 2008. Though Hunter's office later petitioned Gates - successor as defense secretary, Leon Panetta, to reconsider Gates decision on the matter, Panetta opted not to overturn Gates decision.

Hunter has new optimism regarding the petition for two reasons, Kasper said. The first is the recent presentation of the Medal of Honor to Army Capt. Will Swenson, whose award nomination was lost for years after his heroic battlefield actions in Afghanistan in 2009. Hunter had publicly pushed for a Pentagon inspector general probe into the bureaucratic errors and delays that kept Swenson from receiving his award.

Hunter spoke with Hagel at Swenson's award ceremony Oct. 15, and renewed his request on Peralta's behalf shortly thereafter.

"With everything that occurred specific to Captain Swenson's nomination, the fact that he was presented the award, more than four years after he was first recommended, goes a very long way to restore integrity and confidence to the Medal of Honor award process," Hunter wrote. "The case of Sergeant Peralta presents the same opportunity. By awarding him the Medal of Honor, a major error in judgment can be corrected and much of the criticism pointed toward the awards process can be addressed - not by words, but by actions."

Hunter was hopeful of getting traction with Hagel, Kasper said, because the new defense secretary was an enlisted infantry squad leader in Vietnam, while the previous two secretaries served as officers in non-infantry roles.

"He knows what it means to be in a situation like that," Kasper said. "He also knows what would happen if a grenade detonated 1 to 3 feet from someone's body."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., have also endorsed the renewed Medal of Honor petition for Peralta.