Thursday, March 8, 2012

Sgt Rafael Peralta, USMC: Medal of Honor Case Continues (Update)

The largest and certainly the bloodiest battle of the recent Iraq War was the Second Battle of Fallujah, in November 2004.  A major part of the reason that it was the bloodiest is precisely because it was the second battle for that city, about 60 km west of Baghdad.  Fallujah formed for a time the center of an area that saw increasing resistance to the US military after the collapse of the Iraqi army in 2003, and this from various elements including Sunni, foreign, and criminal.  The first attempt to placate the area came the previous April in an ill-advised scheme foisted onto the Marines who had just been moved into the area.  It quickly bogged down in a morass of political second-guessing and directives from non-military players, in what was ironically named Operation Vigilant Resolve.  This allowed the jihadi fighters to more fully organize, reinforce, equip, and harden their areas within the city, so that when the Marines and others were finally able to begin their assault in earnest for this second battle, the result was urban warfare of a scale not seen since the Marine assault to re-take Hué in 1968.

A small part of this operation (though only in proportion; it's never small when you are in the middle of it) was the house-to-house fighting on 15 November that included Alfa Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines.  Sergeant Rafael Peralta, a scout team leader, volunteered to assist an under-strength squad in the company, after first standing watch over the exhausted men the night before to allow them to catch some needed sleep after their third day of fighting.  They joined the search and attack operation again early in the morning.

While sweeping into the seventh house of that day, the point man swung open a door into an interior room and was immediately met with “intense, close-range automatic weapons fire from multiple insurgents”.  The squad returned fire, wounding one of the enemy, but in the firefight Sgt Peralta was hit several times as he tried to maneuver out of the line of fire, including a mortal wound to the head.  The insurgents broke contact by throwing a grenade into the room with the Marines, which came to rest near where Sgt Peralta lay dying.  In an action witnessed by the several Marines in the room (a grenade landing nearby has a way of focusing your attention), Peralta reached out and swept the grenade to him, absorbing the blast and saving the lives of his comrades only a few feet away.  For this heroic ‘last full measure of devotion’, he was recommended for the Medal of Honor.

Instead, a panel established by the Secretary of Defense (then Robert Gates) in accordance with standard procedures, decided that Sgt Peralta would receive the second-highest decoration, the Navy Cross.

Despite the testimony of the eye-witnesses (at least two are necessary) and the conclusions of two neurosurgeons that Peralta retained the ability in his dying moments to sweep the grenade to him, a pathologist who performed the autopsy concluded that Peralta was likely already dead when the grenade detonated.  The conclusion noted that examination of Peralta’s body armor by an “EOD expert” did not indicate that the grenade exploded “beneath the body of Sgt Peralta”, and it expressed “doubt” that he had the "cognitive capacity to make the conscious decision to sacrifice himself and the physical capability to find and 'scoop' the grenade".
Autopsy evidence . . . suggests that death likely occurred before the grenade exploded. . . . [T]he totality of the medical evidence clearly places a “margin of doubt” on his neurological ability to perform this voluntary act.
The conclusion by the five-member panel of military retirees (a Medal of Honor recipient, a Lieutenant General, two neurosurgeons and a pathologist) was then constrained by the standard that “There must be no margin of doubt or possibility of error in awarding this honor”.

Peralta’s family has refused to accept the Navy Cross, while seeking to appeal the decision.  That appeal has come in the form of Representatives Duncan L Hunter (R-California) and Bob Filner (D-California) along with the entire congressional delegation for the San Diego area as well as both California senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.  The joint letter to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has asked that the matter be re-opened, particularly in the light of two developments.

The first is the surfacing of video of Peralta’s body being removed from the house where he was killed.  The pathologist report states that the grenade “detonated near Sgt Peralta’s left side at about the knee level, rather than beneath him”, but the video clearly shows Peralta’s left leg intact.  additionally, my knowledge of the eye-witness testimony (limited, I will confess) is that Peralta swept the grenade to himself, providing a shield for those around him.  I know of nothing that indicates that he would have rolled over on top of the grenade as well.  This is an area of dispute that I find . . . confusing.

The other is the testimony of another forensic pathologist, Dr Vincent Di Maio of the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, which disagrees with the conclusions of the pathologist on the panel as to the extent of the head injury.
I have seen individuals with head trauma who are alert, conscious and talking even though there was extensive injury to the cranial vault and which ‘common sense’ would tell you is not possible.  Unless a vital area is injured, one should be extremely careful in giving the opinion that an individual was absolutely unable to perform an action. . .
Taking into account the circumstances surrounding the incident: the statements of the witnesses; the condition of the body armor; the autopsy findings; the opinion of the neurosurgeons and neurologist and my own experience with head wounds, it is my opinion that, in all medical probability, Sgt. Peralta was not immediately incapacitated by the brain injury, and in fact reached for the grenade and pulled it under his body.
The crux of the matter comes down to a panel of experts, far removed from the incident, over-ruling the testimony of the several eye-witnesses.  The criteria has always been on examining the testimony, but the standard of “no margin of doubt or possibility of error” allows the opinion of one of these experts to veto the decisions of all the others, including that of the recommending officer, Marine LtGen Richard F Natonski:
I believe Sergeant Peralta made a conscious, heroic decision to cover the grenade and minimize the effects he knew it would have on the rest of his Marine team.
Unfortunately, politics has interfered still further.  This includes the question of the paucity of Medals of Honor in the Iraq and Afghan wars – a total of ten to date, as opposed to 465 for World War II, 136 for Korea, and 247 for Viet Nam.  Reasons include the different nature of the war, which include stand-off attacks by drones in our case and IEDs by the enemy.  The whole area of military decorations and the rationale for who receives them and who does not, and why, is a very active, personal, and controversial topic, so I will seek to avoid drawing myself into such a wide-ranging argument, but suffice it to say that I believe the number of these decorations for actions “above and beyond the call of duty” seems strangely small.  (And that would include the case of SFC Alwyn Cashe as well.)
Even more confusing: the panel voted that Sgt Peralta did not have the capacity at that moment to do what he did, but the citation for his Navy Cross specifically states that he did.

There is also identity politics creeping into the equation.  Sgt Peralta was born in Mexico City and brought to the US by his parents, where he was raised.  America was his home, and he sought to honor that idea by joining the US Marine Corps, which would facilitate his becoming a full-fledged US citizen instead of the status of an illegal alien thrust upon him by his parents.  Beyond the on-going controversy about illegal immigration, seeking citizenship though service to the country in the military, particularly in time of war, is an honorable way to achieve citizenship.  I salute him for that too.  It doesn’t matter where he was born or his original nationality.  What matters is that he was a Marine – no other questions matter about his identity – and that he performed the actions that his fellow Marines saw.  I do believe in the integrity of the process, and I fervently hope that Peralta is not denied, nor is he granted, the Medal of Honor for reasons outside of the actions that he performed.

In the interim, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has announced that a new Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, DDG 115, will be named the USS Rafael Peralta, which is an appropriate decision (as opposed to some of Mabus’ other decisions in this regard). 

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)  I agree and encourage the recognition of Sgt Peralta’s actions and sacrifice with the Medal of Honor.
Update:  The case continues, now with another congressional inquiry.

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