Karen Peralta - Sgt. Peralta's younger sister
Ret. Marine Lt. Colonel Jack Harkins, chair of the United Veterans council of San Diego County.
Beth Ford Roth, KPBS Military Blogger
Related Story: DOD Denies Medal Of Honor For San Diego Marine
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Thursday, December 13th. Our top story on Midday Edition, today a letter was released from U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta confirming the government's decision to deny a posthumous medal of honor to marine sergeant Rafael Peralta. He died in 2004 in Fallujah, Iraq. The Marines in his squad say his actions saved their lives. But the government says he could not have voluntarily acted to save lives after being fatally wounded by friendly fire. My guests, Karen Peralta is sergeant Peralta's younger sister. And Karen, welcome to the show. Thank you for being here.
PERALTA: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Retired marine lieutenant colonel Jack Harkins is here, chair of the united veterans' council of San Diego County. Welcome to the show.
HARKINS: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: And Beth Ford Roth is KPBS military blogger. Hi.
FORD ROTH: Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Karen, let me start with you. How did your family hear about the most recent news that the Department of Defense was not going to reverse its decision and award the meddle of honor to your brother?
PERALTA: To be honest, I believe my sister was the first one to find out. I was at school. My mother called me crying. And she told me I needed to go home. So I just barely found out yesterday.
CAVANAUGH: Now, obviously the news came as a shock. It surprised you. Why is that?
PERALTA: Because we had our hopes up really high. People were saying that he was going to receive it this time. And it was just a surprise that they denied it once again.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you've heard a lot of people discuss and argue about the specific circumstances of your brother's death. Is it okay if we go into that a little bit now with you here?
CAVANAUGH: Okay. So Beth, why does everyone agree happened during the fatal incident back in 2004? And where do the stories differ?
FORD ROTH: Okay, well, so on November 15th, 2004, sergeant Peralta entered a house that the marines were searching in Fallujah, Iraq. Then a bullet hit him behind his left ear, and right after that happened, an insurgent threw a grenade into the same room where he had just been shot. This is where things diverge. The Marines who were present say he pulled the grenade under his body and therefore saved all of their lives by protecting them from that blast. Now, the medical examiner who autopsied Peralta testified that the bullet wound likely killed him instantly, therefore he wouldn't have been physically able to pull the grenade underneath him.
CAVANAUGH: Those are the 2 stories that are in circulation now. What most of the Marines say who were actually there, and the scientific evidence that the government has compiled. The government first denied the medal of honor to sergeant Peralta in 2008. How did they go about making that determination?
FORD ROTH: It was kind of in an unusual way. Back then, defense secretary Robert Gates convened a panel to review the evidence of sergeant Peralta's actions. And this was unprecedented, this kind of panel. And some say the reason for this was there had been a lot of criticism years earlier of the Pentagon releasing stories about Pat Tillman, Jessica Lynch, that perhaps weren't true. So I think to sort of cover the base, Gates convened this panel. It was unusual because it had a medical examiner, a neurosurgeon, a neuroscientist, and a medal of honor recipient. And usually it's a matter of eyewitness accounts they put together.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Jack Harkins, can you remind us of the significance of the medal of honor?
HARKINS: It is extremely significant. All members of the military are instructed on matters such as our highest awards, our highest decorations for valor and service in acts of war and combat. And the congressional medal of honor is the highest award that our nation can present to any member of our armed forces. Its special designation as a congressional medal of honor is because very significantly it is presented on behalf of the Congress. When the present awards the medal of honor to a service member or posthumously awards to that member their or family, survivors, it's on behalf of the Congress of the United States. None of the other medals or decorations the service members can receive, the Navy cross, and the distinguished service cross, have that distinction. And additionally, the medal has a great deal of prestige because of the very well known and revered persons who were recipients who became very well known to the American public going back as far as to World War I with sergeant Alvin York, a great hero of the war being so well known and long admired and revered.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Beth just told us about this panel that was impanelled to decide whether or not Rafael Peralta should be awarded the medal of honor. It had forensic pathologists on it, a retired army colonel, and that is described as unprecedented. How are potential recipients scrutinized usually to see whether or not they should be awarded this medal?
HARKINS: The nomination for any award for valorous conduct or gallantry in service and combat begins from the unit level. From a level where a platoon commander or company commander by the reports that they have of the action that has taken place in their organization submit a nomination for a member to receive an award, a decoration, for their outstanding individual valorous and gallant conduct in combat service. And then that is reviewed and carefulry managed by the chain of command, for example in the Marine Corps, up through all the commanding levels, commanding generals, to the commandant of the Marine Corps before being decided by the Department of Defense.
CAVANAUGH: And generally it is just a recitation of what witnesses say happened.
HARKINS: Correct, yes.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Karen, your brother came to the marines with a sort of very interesting life story. This is something that was a goal for him, was a dream of his. Tell us a little bit about how he felt about wanting to join the Marines.
PERALTA: He wanted to join the Marine, I believe it was at Moors high school where he went too, they talked about joining the Marines. But at that time, he had his green card and he wasn't able to join. He went and they told him that he couldn't. And he said I'll be back, and I'm going to join. And he did. He went back, and he joined, and the marines was his life. He loved the military.
CAVANAUGH: Your family received a really poignant letter from him after news came of his death about how he felt his life had -- he'd lived his life, he had really done what he was supposed to do on earth by being a marine.
PERALTA: Exactly. Me and my brother received that letter right after we found out he passed away. He told my brother that he lived his life to the fullest.
CAVANAUGH: Now, your brother was awarded the Navy cross. We just heard Jack tell us about that. That's the highest award that can come from the Navy for your brother's actions. But your family refused it. Why is that?
PERALTA: We haven't refused it. People say we have, but we haven't.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay.
PERALTA: We just haven't had time to pick it up as a family. My brother was in Iraq, Ricardo, so we didn't have time at that moment. And now we're just waiting. But we haven't refused it, we haven't said no. It's his now already. But we just as a family haven't had time to go and receive it.
CAVANAUGH: I'm very glad you clarified that for us because I have read that. So it's just a matter of your going to have the whole family go and collect it.
CAVANAUGH: Beth, one of the contradictory aspects of this story is that the Navy in awarding the Navy cross commended sergeant Peralta for really the exact same things the government says that he did not and could not have done because of the scientific evidence says.
FORD ROTH: That's right. Thought reading from part of the Navy cross citation, and this is a quote "without hesitation, and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, sergeant Peralta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast and shielding fellow marines only feet away." And this is exactly what -- it contradicts the evidence that was used by the Gates panel to refuse the medal of honor saying because of his wounds, he was not able to pull the grenade. So that is sort of a striking contradiction.
CAVANAUGH: And that finding from the Gates committee has been reaffirmed now by the Department of Defense in a letter they just issued today.
FORD ROTH: Right. Basically saying that there needed to be proof beyond a reasonable doubt to sort of overturn what the previous secretary had ruled and Panetta found that there wasn't this high bar met of proof without a reasonable doubt.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Some people have criticized the Department of Defense for being overall reluctantly, I guess would be a word to say, to award medals of honor to those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They point to that nearly 250 medals of honor were awarded in Vietnam, and only 10 for people who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. What do you think could explain the difference there?
HARKINS: There are some important differences in the natures of the two conflicts. I first want to say that the type of service that the men and women who have served our nation in both these conflicts, Iraq and Afghanistan, in these past decades have given the highest caliber of service and diligence and loyalty by making repeated deployments into those zones, and the strain on them and their families has just been unprecedented. But the difference in the two conflicts is I think important. In Vietnam there were very large operations that involved numbers of battalions, more than one U.S. battalion, army battalions, or marine battalions in operations since Vietnam forces, Vietcong forces of the same size. That put many thousands of people simultaneously in direct combat actions. So more occurrences could take place where valorous actions had to be carried out. And at the same time, there were air combat operations that were of a more intense nature, including air to air combat by our pilots. So those are some factual differences between the two conflicts. The examples that we have of the heroism and the gallantry of the service members who are the recipients of the medal of honor during these two conflicts rank as inspiring as any our nation has ever had. And it is something that I think people need to bear in mind the differences between the two conflicts when they say there's a disparity.
CAVANAUGH: When you're saying is in Vietnam, at any one time, there was just more fighting going on.
HARKINS: That engaged many more individuals, yes.
CAVANAUGH: All right, okay. Karen, we just talked about the fact that your family will be accepting the Navy cross. Why is it so important to your family to see your brother receive the highest award, the congressional medal of honor?
PERALTA: Because it's something he deserves, and I believe not only my family, but many, many people believe the same thing. And it's just not that we want it to be greedy or anything. It's just that he deserves it. And we want him to show people too that we can -- if we all get-together, maybe he can receive it. But it's not that we want it, it's what he deserves.
CAVANAUGH: Right, right. Is there the belief in your family that this will ultimately happen?
PERALTA: To be honest, in my part, I can't speak for my family. I want to have hope, but it's just -- it's always back and forth like a big roller coaster. So I have hope, but not as much as I had before.
CAVANAUGH: The Navy has said that it is going to honor your brother by naming a destroyer after sergeant Rafael Peralta. How would you like him to be remembered?
PERALTA: Well, he's remembered as a hero, of course. But as a person that would give everything for everybody. Everybody came first. He was really outgoing, fun, and I do believe that my brother did do something like that because he was never greedy. He always helped other people.
CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you, Karen Peralta, so much for speaking with us. I know it wasn't the easiest thing in the world. Thank you.
PERALTA: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And my other guests, thanks a lot to both of you.
HARKINS: You're very welcome,
FORD ROTH: You're welcome.