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Column: A question of honor

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SAN DIEGO -- Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta gave his life for his country. And yet, he and his battlefield heroics have been treated in a manner that can only be described as shameful.

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His actions should earn him a posthumous Medal of Honor. If there were any justice, the award would already be on his family's mantel draped across a photo of him in uniform.

The fact that he hasn't received it, and that this injustice could so easily be corrected by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and President Obama, makes your blood boil.

The only thing that brings comfort is that Peralta's family also knows a lot about honor, and they haven't given up the fight to get Rafael the credit he deserves. Along with the members of Congress from the San Diego area and California's senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, they're calling on Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to resubmit Peralta's nomination for the nation's highest military honor.

The family is pinning its hopes on a report by an outside forensic expert, Texas pathologist Vincent Di Maio, that contradicts the conclusions of an Army pathologist about the way Peralta died. Based on the Army report, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided not to award Peralta the Medal of Honor. Instead, he offered a consolation prize, the Navy Cross. The family turned it down.

The Peralta brigade has some impressive reinforcements. The Marine Corps and U.S. Central Command agree that Peralta qualifies, and his comrades in Alpha Company have joined the effort to ensure that the Marine who saved their lives receives the proper recognition.

Although Peralta entered the United States from Mexico without documents as a teenager, he joined the Marines on the day that he received his green card and eventually became a U.S. citizen. He also went on to become what his comrades called "a Marine's Marine" with a reputation for always taking care of his men. He lived up to that reputation on Nov. 15, 2004, when -- while exchanging fire with the enemy in Fallujah, Iraq -- he allegedly smothered a grenade to save the lives of other Marines.

I say "allegedly" because nearly eight years later, there are those who -- while they were nowhere near Fallujah that day -- claim that it is likely Peralta didn't voluntarily throw himself on the grenade. They contend he fell on it after being hit in the back of the head with a bullet fragment and incapacitated.

This was the opinion of the Army pathologist who performed an autopsy on Peralta and who insisted that a fragment that struck him "would have been immediately incapacitating and nearly instantly fatal" and stopped him from executing "any meaningful motions." A civilian panel commissioned by the Defense Department concluded the same thing, and Gates accepted that view.

In the opposing camp: Four doctors who have, in the last several years, looked at the forensic evidence and concluded that the bullet fragment was traveling at such a "low velocity" that it probably didn't kill him instantly and that Peralta could have grabbed the grenade and tucked it into his chest. There are also the seven Marines who were at the scene who claim this is exactly what Peralta did.

Normally, the act of using your body to absorb a grenade blast in order to save the lives of comrades is considered the ultimate act of valor and selflessness that all but guarantees the awarding of the Medal of Honor.

It did for 22-year-old Marine Cpl. Jason L. Dunham, who died in this manner on April 14, 2004, in Karabilah, Iraq. And it did for 19-year-old Army Pvt. Ross McGinnis, who gave his life this way in Baghdad on Dec. 4, 2006. And this was the case for 25-year-old Navy Seal Michael A. Monsoor, who died in Ramadi on Sept. 29, 2006.

Sgt. Peralta gave his country everything he had to give. The least his country can do in return is acknowledge his sacrifice and give him the credit he deserves.

This sort of thing is hard to swallow in the Latino community, which boasts the highest ratio of recipients relative to their percentage of the population. To date, Latinos have received at least 43 Medals of Honor, the first three during the Civil War.

They are owed one more.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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