Rafael Peralta's heroism in Iraq is apparent to anyone who hears about his story. A 25-year-old Marine sergeant, Peralta volunteered for a mission to clear insurgents from a neighborhood in Fallujah in November 2004. He charged into several homes, leading a squad of eight men. In the fifth home, gunmen ambushed the Marines, shooting Sergeant Peralta in the face and neck. Cpl. Robert Reynolds, who fought alongside Peralta and took a bullet in the arm, says he saw Peralta melt onto the floor and lie in a pool of blood. Then Reynolds spotted what is the dread of every infantryman: a grenade bouncing toward the squad. "It was yellow and it came from a room to our side," he says. Reynolds says he watched Peralta reach out and drag the grenade under his body. Peralta died in the explosion; others in the room sustained only light wounds.
Last month, more than three years after that battle in Fallujah, the Department of Defense told Peralta's mother it had recommended that her son posthumously be given the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor. It now awaits the president's approval. Rosa Peralta says it is an apt tribute to her son, who wanted to be a Marine since he moved to San Diego from Mexico at 15 and signed up the day he got permanent residency in the United States. But his case underscores how cautious the military has been about honoring service in Iraq. Only two other Iraq vets have received the Medal of Honor, compared with 245 GIs who fought in Vietnam and 464 in World War II. Lesser medals have also been in short supply. Pentagon officials say the disparity has to do with the nature of combat in Iraq: less face-to-face fighting and fewer occasions for valor. "We're fighting an unconventional war in Iraq and we're using a big part of our military to perform noncombat duties—to help build that country," says Jack Jacobs, a retired Army colonel who fought in Vietnam and is one of only 107 living Medal of Honor recipients. "There just might be fewer opportunities there for people to do extraordinary things."
Jacobs, 62, received the award for saving the lives of an American and 13 allied soldiers in 1968. An adviser to Vietnamese troops, Jacobs was wounded in an attack on his group but led them to a rear position and then returned to the fire zone repeatedly to rescue survivors. During consecutive tours in Vietnam, he says he was in combat "pretty much the whole time I was in country." By contrast, most American troops never see Iraqi insurgents, even if the Americans are wounded in action. About 40 percent of the American fatalities in Iraq have been caused by roadside bombs planted in secret and detonated remotely.
But those distinctions tell only half the story. Iraq veterans point to the battles of 2004 and 2005 in Fallujah, Ramadi and elsewhere as examples of fighting that were as fierce as it gets in war. Even in defensive situations, says David Bellavia, a retired Army staff sergeant who spent more than a year in Iraq, examples abound of troops risking their lives to save their buddies. At least five GIs have died jumping on grenades, the most iconic act of valor in warfare. "So many of our guys are worthy and they've been completely ignored," he tells NEWSWEEK. Bellavia attributes the dearth of medals—and the slow process of approving them—to bureaucratic clumsiness at the Pentagon and to a lack of transparency in the awards process. (Pentagon officials involved in adjudicating the awards have said publicly that secrecy is necessary to preserve the integrity of the process, and they explain that the delay is due to the need to interview witnesses. They did not respond to requests for an interview.) "What's unfortunate is that those who survive have to then politic for their award," he says.
His own experience is a case in point. A day before Peralta gathered the grenade to his body, Bellavia stormed a different Fallujah home, killing several insurgents in what devolved into hand-to-hand combat. "I had bite marks when it was over," he says. (Bellavia describes the fight in his book, "House to House.") For Bellavia's actions, his commanding officer submitted his name for a Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest award for valor. Later he was told by commanders that he was a candidate for the Medal of Honor, which the president bestows personally. For months Bellavia waited to hear which of the two he would receive. Then one day, about a year after the fighting in Fallujah, a mailman delivered a lesser award, the Silver Star, to his home. "Imagine my surprise," he says.
Now a civilian, Bellavia is agitating the Defense Department to recognize other GIs for their valor, including Peralta. He says his Pentagon contacts told him Peralta's Medal of Honor had been delayed because pathologists questioned whether he could have scooped up the grenade given the severity of his gunshot wounds. The three-year wait has made closure difficult for the Peraltas. (By contrast, it took the Pentagon 19 months to award Jacobs his Vietnam-era medal.) Rosa Peralta, who speaks only Spanish, says she came to terms long ago with the fact that the award would not bring back her son. Instead she focuses on what would have been Sergeant Peralta's likely response. "He would jump for joy knowing that he was honored for saving other people," she says through a translator. One more signature to go.
'Above and Beyond'
The government has bestowed more than 3,400 members of the military with the Medal of Honor; 18 percent of the recipients got the award posthumously.
The Medal of Honor, first given during the Civil War, recognizes 'gallantry and intrepidity … above and beyond the call of duty.' It is the highest military decoration that the U.S. government awards those who serve.
Number of Medals Awarded
World War I: 124
World War II: 464
Korean War: 131
Vietnam War: 245