Thursday, September 18, 2008

An outrage and a disgrace


On Nov. 15, 2004, Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta and his unit were involved in a house-to-house battle with Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah. Shortly after entering one house, Sgt. Peralta was wounded several times- the most serious wound being in the head- by ricocheting bullets from the rifles of his fellow Marines.

Eye-witnesses state that lying next to the fallen Peralta was a live grenade which threatened not only his own life, but those of his buddies. According to those eye-witnesses, the wounded Peralta scooped the grenade under his own body, absorbing the blast and saving his fellow Marines at the cost of his own life. The President of the United States subsequently singled Peralta out by name for special praise as an example of the heroism of our fighting men in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But not so fast. The military doctor who did the autopsy on Peralta's body claimed that one of the bullet wounds to his head would have been almost instantly lethal, and precluded any possibility of "meaningful action" on his part after receiving it. The surgeon who had tried to save Peralta disagrees; so do two other military pathologists who have studied the autopsy records. But the doctor who actually did the autopsy stands by his findings.

The result: Peralta has been denied the Congressional Medal of Honor, and posthumously awarded the Navy Cross instead. The reason: sufficient ambiguity is alleged to exist in the evidence to permit doubt as to the voluntary nature of Peralta's actions.

I leave it those who reached that decision to explain how the dying Marine could have involuntarily scooped the grenade underneath his body. One of the Marines who saw the whole thing, however, and whose life Peralta saved- voluntarily or not- responded to the decision by simply saying, "It's almost as if somebody has called me a liar."

Certainly being awarded the Navy Cross is itself a high and glorious honor. Fewer than two dozen men have ever received the award. But the decision seems to be a rather typical bureaucratic cop-out. If Peralta voluntarily scooped that grenade under his body, his action is absolutely identical to one for which several Marines and soldiers have been awarded the Medal of Honor in the past.

On the other hand, if Peralta was incapable of meaningful action after receiving the wound to his head, it's hard to see the justification for awarding him the Navy Cross, or any other medal. The DoD decision seems to be a kind of half-baked compromise which certainly appears to perpetrate an injustice no matter how one reads the evidence!

But the eye-witnesses agree that he did scoop the grenade under his body, and the notion that he could have done so involuntarily seems quite a bit less than even mimimally credible. People have been executed in cases in which the evidence cast substantially more doubt upon their guilt than it seems to upon the voluntary nature of Sgt. Peralta's action. And the standard of proof in American criminal trials is, of course, the very standard Secretary of Defense Gates cited today in explaining the decision not to award Sg. Peralta the Medal of Honor: reasonable doubt.

Whatever doubt may exist in this case seems to me to be something less than reasonable!

Sgt. Peralta's mother agrees. She plans to refuse to accept the lesser medal- and I can't say that I blame her a bit.

Incidentally, there is one more detail in the Peralta story that deserves mentioning. Take it for what it's worth, but Rafael Peralta came to the United States from Mexico as a little boy- illegally.

This is not, of course, in any way, shape or form an argument for amnesty, or a diminuation of the very legitimate concern many of us have about the scale of illegal immigration.

Just sayin.'

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