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Give Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta his Medal of Honor

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Commentator
updated 7:44 PM EST, Fri February 28, 2014
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.

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