Marine may finally get Medal of Honor
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
By William Cole
For the better part of three years, the refrain from grunts in the Marine Corps has been, "What about Peralta?"
More specifically, the question they have is about Sgt. Rafael Peralta's Medal of Honor recommendation, and where it stands.
Finally, there may be some good news.
Rosa Peralta, his mother, received a call just before Christmas from an assistant secretary of the Navy saying the recommendation had been approved by the Pentagon, and needs the president's final OK, a family representative said.
"Based on what he told her, which is what she told me, it's already passed the military chain of command," said California lawyer George Sabga, a retired Marine who acts as a go-between for the family.
Peralta, a Mexican immigrant who enlisted the day after he got his green card, and who proudly posted the U.S. Constitution in his home in San Diego, was killed on Nov. 15, 2004, in Fallujah, Iraq.
The short and stocky Marine had deployed to Japan with 900 other members of the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, but the Kane'ohe Bay unit was rerouted to Iraq and found itself in the thick of fierce street fighting.
Shot in the face as he and other Hawai'i Marines cleared a house, Peralta, 25, had the presence of mind to grab a tossed Iraqi grenade and pull it into his body, saving fellow Marines.
Peralta was killed instantly.
He was not only a hero, but an immigrant hero who got his citizenship while in uniform, loved what America and the Corps stood for, and proved it with his life, say those who knew him.
Robert Reynolds, one of the Alpha Company Marines who was in that Iraqi house on that day, figures Peralta saved the lives of as many as five Marines.
"When I first saw that grenade, I figured I was done," said Reynolds, 30, now a corrections officer in Washington state. "But when I saw Sgt. Peralta reach out and grab it, at first I was kinda confused. The grenade went off and I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm still here,' and I continued to fight."
U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., in late 2004 wrote a letter to then Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee recommending Peralta for the Medal of Honor.
The supreme sacrifice made by the Marine, whose nickname was "Rafa," already has passed into lore and legend.
The 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, to which Peralta was assigned in 2004, in September named its Camp Hansen headquarters in Japan "Peralta Hall."
On Memorial Day 2005, President Bush singled out Peralta for his valor, saying he "understood that America faces dangerous enemies, and he knew the sacrifices required to defeat them."
As a "platoon guide," Peralta didn't have to be there as Hawai'i Marines slogged through Fallujah in one of the biggest battles of the war, but he volunteered.
There is widespread acknowledgement that Peralta deserves the Medal of Honor, but more than three years after his death, the recommendation has remained just that, frustrating fellow Marines and family.
"I told (Rosa Peralta's casualty assistance officer) that enough's enough," Sabga said. "This thing's gotta end sooner or later, one way or the other. Approve it or downgrade it."
Rosa Peralta, who speaks only Spanish, declined through a representative to talk about the Pentagon phone call she received. Those acting for her said she wants the Medal of Honor to be approved before commenting.
Marine headquarters did not comment on the recognition status. In anticipation of the award, another retired Marine working with the Peralta family has created a Web site, www.rafaelperalta.org.
ONLY TWO IN IRAQ AWARDED
The Medal of Honor is the nation's highest military award for valor in action against an enemy force that can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the U.S. armed forces. The award was established by Congress in 1862.
Only two have been awarded for fighting in Iraq.
In October, a Pearl Harbor-based Navy SEAL, Lt. Michael P. Murphy, became the first service member to receive the Medal of Honor during more than six years of fighting in Afghanistan.
Murphy, 29, gave his life trying to save his four-man team during a 2005 mission high in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan.
Murphy's recognition came two years and four months after he died. Peralta died three years and two months ago.
The review before a Medal of Honor is awarded is exhaustive. For the first two recipients from the Iraq war, Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith and Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham, it took between two and 2 1/2 years.
Both died in battle. Like Peralta, Dunham gave his life smothering a grenade to protect others.
"I can't honestly tell you why it's taken so long (for Peralta). I can speculate like everyone else can, but I don't know," Reynolds said.
There were rumors of a friendly fire gunshot, and questions about Peralta's mental alertness when he pulled in the grenade.
Marines who were there, though, say there is no disputing Peralta's bravery as he lay seriously wounded on the floor, trying to move. He should get the Medal of Honor, they say.
"He deserves it, by far. It's obvious," said Adam Morrison, who was a few feet away from Peralta. "They awarded Cpl. Dunham (the Medal of Honor) for doing the same exact thing."
Morrison, 23, now a sergeant at Kane'ohe Bay, remembers one of three enemy fighters lobbing a grenade as they fled out a back door. There were about eight Marines moving through the two-story concrete house.
He said the grenade bounced off furniture and landed next to Peralta. "It was kind of like out of reach for us. Everything was happening so quick," Morrison said.
Reynolds remembers the grenade being yellow, and looking like a pineapple.
"I can sit here right now and I can see (Peralta) taking his right arm out and scooping it into his body," Reynolds said.
The Hawai'i Marines said they had taken fire from alleys, rooftops and other buildings as they went house to house in Fallujah, but it was the first time Alpha Company had encountered an ambush inside a house.
Morrison said all was quiet until the two Marine fire teams reached the back of the house, which had interconnected living rooms. Three enemy fighters were waiting.
When the Marines kicked in a door, gunshots rang out.
"Rounds flew right past me and (Brannon) Dyer and kinda skinned our gear," Morrison said.
That's when Peralta was hit and went down.
Reynolds said Peralta was shot three times on the left side of his face. Reynolds, shot in the arm, kept fighting. Shrapnel from the grenade hit several Marines and the house was on fire.
Dyer, 30, who's out of the Corps and lives in Blairsville, Ga., said "you could see enemy weapons, (rocket-propelled grenades) and grenades. They had a large storage of weapons."
It didn't surprise Morrison that Peralta reached for the grenade.
"He was just that type of guy," Morrison said. "He really wanted to be a Marine, and to be an American."
LOST HIS FATHER, FIANCEE
Peralta grew up in Tijuana, moved to California, went to Morse High School and enlisted in 2000. His father died in a truck accident the next year, and his fiancee, Maritca Alvarez, died in a vehicle accident in Mexico.
The Marines made him do recruiting for a while, but Peralta insisted on being deployed for war duty, Morrison said.
Reynolds said Peralta was a "Marine's Marine" who was "all about taking care of his guys."
He remembers that when the Hawai'i Marines were in Kuwait, waiting to enter Iraq, Peralta had his camouflage uniform pressed so it had a "military crease."
"We're in the middle of a war zone, and he's worrying about his uniform," Reynolds said.
Morrison said Peralta "was a good guy, morally, mentally and physically. He was strong, same as spiritually. He was real spiritual."
For Reynolds and the others who were in that house in 2004, the wait since Peralta was recommended for the nation's highest military honor has been tough.
They relive the firefight as the legend of Rafael Peralta grows, but the Medal of Honor remains out of reach.
"It's been aggravating because you hear so many different things," Reynolds said. "You hear that he's not getting it. You hear that he is getting it. You hear that it's going to be on such and such a date, but then that date comes and goes. And it's been three years now."
Said Morrison, of Peralta's recommendation: "I'm kind of a religious guy. Jesus Christ said there's no greater love for someone than to lay your life down for them. That right there just characterizes everything."
Reach William Cole at email@example.com.