In his new book, 'Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War,' former Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes that he approved a posthumous Medal of Honor for Sgt. Rafael Peralta, but rescinded it after opposition to the award began to surface. (Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press)
In a shocking revelation in his soon-to-be-released memoir, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he had approved a Medal of Honor recommendation for late Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta in 2008, before controversy convinced him to rescind the approval.
Peralta’s award has been the subject of dispute and speculation since he was awarded the Navy Cross, a significant but lesser honor, for heroism in the 2004 battle that would cost his life in Fallujah, Iraq. The Medal of Honor package that the Marine Corps submitted for Peralta claimed he had covered a live grenade with his body to protect his fellow Marines while on a house-clearing mission.
In his book “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” Gates said he was convinced by the evidence the Marines presented, and had submitted his medal recommendation to the president before deciding to withdraw it.
“The medal recommendation had been endorsed by the proper chain of approval, including the secretary of the Navy and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, the documentation also included dissenting views from the medical forensic community and the undersecretary for personnel and readiness,” Gates wrote in a chapter titled “One Damn Thing After Another.”
“As a result, I personally interviewed several senior officers in Peralta’s chain of command, and in light of the unanimous support of the entire uniformed leadership involved, I approved the recommendation. I was satisfied that Sergeant Peralta met all the criteria and deserved the Medal of Honor.”
Soon after, Gates wrote, he learned of a complaint made to the Defense Department Inspector General that alleged Peralta could not have acted consciously to cover the grenade and save fellow Marines’ lives. Forensic evidence shows Peralta had been hit in the head by a ricocheting bullet fragment that some argue would have incapacitated him prior to the grenade blast. The IG said it planned to carry out an investigation unless Gates personally took action to address the concerns, he wrote.
“I decided that the only way to clear the air quietly was to ask a special panel to look into the allegation,” he wrote.
A spokessoman for DoD IG, Bridget Serchak, said the office does not confirm the existence of, or comment upon, investigations or investigative issues.
The team Gates assembled included forensic pathologists, a neurosurgeon, a retired general officer who had commanded in Iraq, and a former Medal of Honor recipient who pored over all the evidence, he said, including subject matter experts and medical reports.
“The panel concluded unanimously that, with his wounds, Peralta could not have consciously pulled the grenade under him,” Gates wrote. “I had no choice but to withdraw my approval.”
Still, Gates said, he did not consider the door closed on Peralta’s award.
“Perhaps someday, should additional evidence and analysis come to light, the criteria for the award will be deemed to have been met, and Sergeant Peralta will receive the Medal of Honor,” he wrote. “Regardless, there is no doubt he was a hero.”
This revelation from Gates comes amid a new effort to give Peralta the award. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., has unearthed new eyewitness statements and evidence, including Peralta’s shrapnel-battered rifle, and is lobbying aggressively for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to re-open the case.
A spokesman for Hunter, Joe Kasper, said the panel Gates convened to consider the evidence regarding Peralta’s award crucially lacked eyewitnesses who could attest to his actions in his final moments. Still, Kasper said, Gates’ admission that the award could be upgraded with the admission of more evidence should signal an opportunity for Hagel to take action.
“Hagel now has the new or previously unseen evidence that Gates talks about in his book. That is now on Hagel’s desk,” Kasper said. “Hagel now has the evidence to make the decision the Secretary Gates could not.”
Officials with Hagel’s office have said he is familiarizing himself with the facts of the case, but it has not been formally reopened.
Gates’ book hits shelves Jan. 14.