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Mettle, not medal, marks true hero


Elected officials always look for ways to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.

This year, they have the unique opportunity to use what’s left of the month to right a wrong and honor an American hero who was stripped by bureaucrats of the recognition he deserves.

Congress and the White House should celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month – and the American spirit – by finally awarding the Medal of Honor to Sgt. Rafael Peralta.

A Mexican immigrant from Tijuana, Peralta entered the United States illegally when he moved to San Diego as a teenager. He joined the Marines on the day he received his green card.

Later, he became a naturalized citizen. He also became, in the words of one of his colleagues, “a Marine’s Marine” who was “all about taking care of his guys.”

For Peralta, there came a day when taking care of his guys called for a brave and selfless act, the sort of which usually makes one a shoo-in for the Medal of Honor: smothering a grenade to save the lives of others.

That’s what 22-year-old Marine Cpl. Jason L. Dunham did on April 14, 2004, in Karabilah, Iraq.

And what 19-year-old Army Pfc. Ross McGinnis did in Baghdad on Dec. 4, 2006.

And what 25-year-old Navy Seal Michael A. Monsoor did in Ramadi on Sept. 29, 2006.

And, according to top military officials and a half-dozen witnesses, that’s what 25-year-old Rafael Peralta did on Nov. 15, 2004, in Fallujah.

All four men died from their injuries. Dunham, McGinnis, and Monsoor were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. But Peralta was not, even though the Marine Corps, U.S. Central Command and Navy Secretary Donald Winter said he should be.

The reason: conflicting theories from a gaggle of military doctors. The Army pathologist who performed the autopsy insisted that a bullet fragment that struck Peralta in the back of the head “would have been immediately incapacitating and nearly instantly fatal” and prevented the Marine from executing “any meaningful motions.”

Four other doctors concluded that Peralta could have grabbed the grenade and tucked it into his chest, like a half-dozen Marines at the scene claimed he did, because the bullet fragment was traveling at such a “low velocity” that it probably didn’t kill him instantly.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked a civilian panel to review the case. It concluded Peralta didn’t deserve the Medal of Honor. Gates adopted that view.

There are those, including his family and some in the military, who insist that politics are at work here and that what hurt Peralta’s chances was the possibility that his wound came from ricocheted friendly fire.

Even if that were the case, it wouldn’t change what happened with the grenade. The issue is what damage the bullet fragment did, not where the fragment came from.

In the end, Peralta was awarded the Navy Cross, the second-highest decoration for combat valor. But, to Peralta’s family, it is a consolation prize.

The same goes for Peralta’s comrades in Alpha Company who have joined the fight to ensure that the Marine who saved their lives receives recognition for it.

Whereas once they fought armed insurgents in Iraq, they now battle arrogance and ignorance in Washington. The deck is stacked. But, being Marines, they’re in no mood to surrender.

Hopefully, neither is a bipartisan delegation of five members of Congress from southern California who recently stepped into the fray by urging the Pentagon to reconsider its decision and asking President Bush to intervene.

There is also support for Peralta in the Hispanic community, which is no stranger to the Medal of Honor. Hispanics have the highest ratio of recipients relative to their percentage of the population. They’ve received 42 Medals of Honor. The first three were awarded during the Civil War.

Meanwhile, Rosa Peralta hasn’t decided whether she’ll accept the Navy Cross because she and many others are convinced her son deserves much more.

If you read about this story (on Web sites such as www.rafaelperalta.org) and listen to the accounts of the Marines who were actually there – as opposed to bureaucrats and civilian boards that pretend they were – chances are you’ll also become convinced that Rafael Peralta was shortchanged.

But be warned. You will also become enraged – that a nation that owes such an incalculable debt to its warriors could treat one of them so disrespectfully.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail: ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

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