SAN DIEGO — For nearly a decade the debate continued over whether Sgt. Rafael Peralta deserved the Medal of Honor for combat bravery.
Conflicting physical and medical evidence was at the center of the dispute involving the Marine from San Diego, who was killed in Fallujah, Iraq, in November 2004.
One thing, however, remained constant: Marines who were with Peralta that violent day have insisted, repeatedly and emotionally, that he saved their lives by smothering an enemy grenade.
But now, the day after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel supported the decision of his two predecessors to deny the nation’s highest medal for bravery to Peralta, a news story has suggested that the story about him saving lives by smothering a grenade is not true.
In a story published Saturday, The Washington Post quoted two Marines, Davi Allen and Reggie Brown, as saying the story is not true despite their insistence for years that it was. They were quoted as indicating they could no longer support a falsehood even if it was meant to honor a fallen buddy.
“Two former Marines who were with Peralta in the house when he was shot said the story was concocted spontaneously” in the minutes after the firefight, possibly out of remorse that Peralta had been killed by friendly fire as Marines burst into a house to clear away barricaded insurgents, according to the Post story.
But two other Marines, Nicholas Jones and Robert Reynolds, told the newspaper the story was true and they had seen Peralta smother the grenade as he lay mortally wounded.
On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times was given an email from another Marine, Steve Sebby, in which he hotly disputed the idea that Marines concocted a false statement:
“I can say with absolute certainty that no one in that platoon was forced to write anything. … We were all still adrenaline filled. There would have been no time to organize a false testimony amongst so many Marines. The injured Marines even wrote statements long after the rest of the platoon having no contact with us in between.”
Peralta, he said, “did save the lives of the Marines around him.”
On Friday, Hagel said that after an exhaustive review, including an examination from Department of Defense personnel not previously involved in the case, he had concluded that the case does not meet the standards for a Medal of Honor. Although denied that honor, Peralta was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross.
“The ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard, although high, is necessary to preserve the prestige and integrity of the” Medal of Honor, Hagel wrote to Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine. Hunter had petitioned Hagel to award the Medal of Honor to Peralta based on new information about the condition of Peralta’s rifle and body armor after the grenade blast.
But Hagel, a combat veteran of Vietnam, did not find the information sufficient to overturn the decision of Leon Panetta and Robert Gates. Much of Hagel’s decision, like his predecessors’, was based on a medical finding that Peralta was killed when struck in the head by a rifle round and that any movement on the floor was the involuntary spasm of a lifeless body.
There is no indication that Hagel was aware of The Washington Post story as it was being reported and written about the assertions of Allen and Brown that they felt honor-bound to no longer lie about what happened during the firefight.
Peralta, who was 25 when he died, is buried at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. An immigrant from Mexico, he enlisted on the day he received his green card.
He wrote letters to his younger brother Ricardo, urging him to have pride in their adopted country. Ricardo later enlisted in the Marine Corps and deployed to Afghanistan.
Peralta’s mother, Rosa, lives in Chula Vista, Calif., in a home purchased with her son’s military death benefit.