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Kaneohe Marine’s family accepts Navy Cross after fight for Medal of Honor

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Rosa Peralta, mother of Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, holds her hand over her heart during the posting of the colors at the ceremony for her son at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Monday, June 8, 2015. The family of one of the Iraq warÕs most celebrated Marine heroes on Monday accepted the nationÕs second-highest award for valor seven years after the Pentagon denied him the Medal of Honor. (John Gastaldo/San Diego Union-Tribune via AP) NO SALES, NO ARCHIVING, TV OUT, MAGS OUT, TABLOIDS OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    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 CorpsÕ nomination for the Medal of Honor, the nationÕs highest award for military heroism. The family of Sgt. Peralta will accept the nationÕs 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)
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SAN DIEGO >> The family of one of the most celebrated Marine heroes of the Iraq War on Monday accepted the nation’s second-highest award for valor on his behalf seven years after the Pentagon denied him the Medal of Honor.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus posthumously bestowed the Navy Cross on Sgt. Rafael Peralta for falling on a grenade during the battle for Fallujah in November 2004.

The Navy and Marine Corps had recommended the Medal of Honor, but then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates denied the award in 2008 amid questions about whether Peralta was too injured to understand what he did.

The decision came after the inspector general of the Defense Department fielded a complaint and Gates assembled a team of experts that recommended the highest honor be denied.

Gates wrote in his memoir that he initially approved the Medal of Honor but reversed himself after the lengthy investigation.

The decision outraged many Marines after it was upheld by Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel, who followed Gates as secretaries of defense.

Rosa Peralta, the Marine’s mother, long refused to accept the Navy Cross.

Ricardo Peralta, Rafael’s brother, said his mother relented as plans progressed to name a missile destroyer after the fallen Marine. She plans to donate the medal to the USS Rafael Peralta when it is christened later this year.

“She felt, for the first time, something that displayed his spirit in essence,” Ricardo Peralta, 24, who followed his brother into the Marines, told reporters. “That gave her a complete change of heart. She thought it was appropriate for now for her to receive the Navy Cross.”

Rosa Peralta didn’t address the audience of about 200 invited guests or speak with reporters after the ceremony.

Rafael Peralta, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico City and raised in San Diego, was 25 when he was shot while attempting to clear a house in Fallujah.

The Navy Cross citation says insurgents tossed a fragmentation grenade that landed near the head of the wounded Marine.

“Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, Sgt. Peralta reached out and pulled the grenade to his body, absorbing the brunt of the blast and shielding fellow Marines only feet away,” the citation reads.

Mabus, an appointee of President Barack Obama who recommended in 2012 that Peralta receive the Medal of Honor, said at the ceremony that Peralta was a true patriot. He declined to comment on the controversy when asked by reporters.

“This man protected his Marines, he protected his country, he protected the values we all hold so dear up to the moment of his final breath,” Mabus told the audience.

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and attended the ceremony, said Peralta deserved the Medal of Honor. The California Republican predicted a fight to upgrade the award when the time is right.

“The distinction between the awards doesn’t change the fact that there are Marines alive today who say, without condition, that Rafael Peralta saved their lives,” Hunter said.

Staff Sgt. Adam Morrison, 30, said he was next to Peralta when he died and insisted the Marine voluntarily threw himself on the explosive.

“Me standing here is testimony that he did save my life,” Morrison told reporters.

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Associated Press writer Julie Watson in San Diego contributed to this report.

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