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Fallen war hero gets medal after yearslong fight for higher recognition

  • File- This Nov. 19, 2004, file photo shows Rosa Maria Peralta sitting on her son's bed in his bedroom reflects back on her memories with her son, Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta  in San Diego, Calif.  The Navy will posthumously award a Navy Cross to Peralta, who was killed in Iraq, after years of appeals by his family asking the Pentagon to approve the Marine Corps nomination for the Medal of Honor, the nations highest award for military heroism. The family of Sgt. Peralta will accept the nations second-highest award at a ceremony Monday, June 8, 2015, at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego.  (Nelvin Cepeda/U-T San Diego via AP, File)

    File- This Nov. 19, 2004, file photo shows Rosa Maria Peralta sitting on her son's bed in his bedroom reflects back on her memories with her son, Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta in San Diego, Calif. The Navy will posthumously award a Navy Cross to Peralta, who was killed in Iraq, after years of appeals by his family asking the Pentagon to approve the Marine Corps nomination for the Medal of Honor, the nations highest award for military heroism. The family of Sgt. Peralta will accept the nations second-highest award at a ceremony Monday, June 8, 2015, at Camp Pendleton, north of San Diego. (Nelvin Cepeda/U-T San Diego via AP, File)

After years of fighting for a higher military recognition for her son, the mother of Iraq war hero Sgt. Rafael Peralta received on Monday the U.S. Navy Cross.

The military second-highest award for her fallen son’s valor was presented to Rosa Peralta during a ceremony at Camp Pendleton in San Diego by Navy Secretary Ray Maybus, who praised her son as a patriotic Marine.

“Thank you to the family of this American hero,” Mabus said.

"Sgt. Peralta's last act of heroism was his greatest act of love," said the Marine Chaplain during the ceremony.

Peralta was 25 when he died during the bloody Battle of Fallujah, Iraq in 2004. Marines there at the time said he used his body to smother a grenade after being wounded in the head by a ricocheting rifle round, saving several lives.

The Navy Cross was first granted to the fallen hero more than six years ago, but his family had refused to accept the recognition, citing their belief that he really deserved the nation’s highest combat decoration, the Medal of Honor.

The Marine Corps and Navy Department both approved the Medal of Honor to be bestowed posthumously, but the award ultimately was denied by then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in 2008 after a lengthy investigation.

Outraged by the decision, the Peralta family pleaded for years with the Pentagon to approve the Marine Corps' nomination for the Medal of Honor to no avail.

In their struggle they even enlisted the help of U.S. Representatives Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Xavier Becerra (D-CA), Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL).

 “The Navy Cross doesn’t make him any more of a hero than he already is. The Marine Corps and every congressman who worked for his due recognition already knew of his true value,” his mother said through a translator on Thursday.

“We are receiving the medal now because its motive is for a greater cause. That is to offer the medal to the USS Rafael Peralta in his honor. That ship contains his spirit,” she added.

In 2012, the Navy announced that it would build and name a destroyer in honor of Peralta.

Peralta's younger brother, Ricardo, said the mother had grown tired of the fight and that the decision to accept the Navy Cross did not mean that the family was willing to settle.  

In his memoir published last year, Gates said that he had approved the Medal of Honor for Peralta, but withdrew his recommendation to the White House after a complaint was made to the Defense Department Inspector General’s Office.

Gates added that according to that complaint, Peralta could not have acted consciously to cover the grenade because of the wound he had suffered. The inspector general planned to carry out an investigation.

The then-secretary of defense then assembled a team of experts to review information in Peralta’s nomination for the award. They each independently recommended that the Medal of Honor not be granted to Peralta and Gates eventually denied the award, citing their recommendations.

Numerous campaigns have been taken up to have Peralta’s case reviewed, but Gates’s successor at the Pentagon, Leon Panetta, found in 2012 that new evidence presented — a pathology report and videos recorded in the immediate aftermath of the blast scene by Marines present at the time — were not enough to overcome earlier documentation that had raised doubts.

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Marcia Facundo is a freelance journalist who currently reports from Los Angeles, California. She has worked for El Nuevo Herald and as Hispanic Affairs Correspondent for the BBC World Service.

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