After his death in 2004 in Fallujah, Sgt. Rafael Peralta became perhaps the most lionized Marine of the Iraq war. Shot in the head during an intense firefight, the story went, the infantryman scooped a grenade underneath his body seconds before it exploded, a stunning act of courage that saved the lives of his fellow Marines.
The Navy posthumously awarded Peralta the Navy Cross, the service’s second-highest decoration for valor; named a destroyer after him; and made plans to display his battered rifle in the Marine Corps museum in Quantico, Va.
Most individuals may accept, as a matter of course, that these events happen. I used to. Then I started reading the citations, the official stories, accompanying Medal of Honor recipients. For example, that of David B. Bleak:
Nearing the military crest of the hill, while attempting to cross the fire-swept area to attend the wounded, he came under hostile fire from a small group of the enemy concealed in a trench. Entering the trench he closed with the enemy, killed 2 with bare hands and a third with his trench knife. Moving from the emplacement, he saw a concussion grenade fall in front of a companion and, quickly shifting his position, shielded the man from the impact of the blast. Later, while ministering to the wounded, he was struck by a hostile bullet but, despite the wound, he undertook to evacuate a wounded comrade. As he moved down the hill with his heavy burden, he was attacked by 2 enemy soldiers with fixed bayonets. Closing with the aggressors, he grabbed them and smacked their heads together, then carried his helpless comrade down the hill to safety. Sgt. Bleak’s dauntless courage and intrepid actions reflect utmost credit upon himself and are in keeping with the honored traditions of the military service.
The first time I read this was the first time I questioned the veracity of stories of heroism. How do we know this is true? The story itself, frankly, does not seem true. It seems like a modern myth; based on actual events, sure, but embellished. We are expected to believe that this man took out two men by knocking their heads together. The odds are low. So how do we really know?
Who witnessed him kill three men in a trench alone? Who saw him smash the heads of two soldiers together if his comrade was incapacitated? And, most importantly, how do we know they did not lie or exaggerate?
As it turns out, actual verification of a Medal of Honor story is built on a shaky foundation. Decisions as to whom will receive a Medal of Honor are not made on the field of battle. The decisions are made by individuals who may have never even met the person before. The story moves up the chain of command like a game of telephone. Individuals in the Pentagon must trust the reports of those who bring the stories to their door. And although designed to leave “no margin of error or doubt” much of the evidence considered in the Medal of Honor screening process would be consider hearsay in a court of law.
In the case of Sgt. Dakota Meyer, video evidence has raised the question that his Medal of Honor winning story may have been a complete fraud. Meyer recounted his story of fighting off Taliban in Into the Fire: A Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle in the Afghan War. However, the testimony of Meyer’s companions later contradicted him as well. And an examination of the stories indicated that the events surrounding Meyer’s heroism had been exaggerated:
But an exhaustive assessment by a McClatchy correspondent who was embedded with the unit and survived the ambush found that the Marines’ official accounts of Meyer’s deeds — retold in a book, countless news reports and on U.S. military websites — were embellished. They’re marred by errors and inconsistencies, ascribe actions to Meyer that are unverified or didn’t happen and create precise, almost novelistic detail out of the jumbled and contradictory recollections of the Marines, soldiers and pilots engaged in battle.
Recipients of the Medal of Honor are largely not audited. The last attempt to do an audit was in 1916. Regardless of the myth being exposed, it does not seem that a Medal of Honor will be taken away once it is awarded. Thus, the intent is to avoid situations where it may be awarded without merit. Peralta was rejected after being nominated three times for the Medal of Honor. This is the same Marine who had the destroyer named after him. Let’s return to his story:
On Friday night, the Pentagon announced that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had turned down a request by Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.) to reopen a Medal of Honor nomination for Peralta. Hagel, after an extensive review that included new material gathered by Hunter’s office, determined that “the totality of the evidence” was insufficient to award a Medal of Honor, the Pentagon said in a statement.
But Hunter, a former Marine who served in Fallujah, said in an interview earlier this month that awarding the medal is “the right thing to do.”
“When you have young Marines saying, ‘I’m not dead, because he jumped on the grenade,’ that’s all we need to know. There’s no reason to complicate this.”
This is always the origin of Medal of Honor accounts: the battlefield comrades. We can give them the benefit of the doubt. They are not necessarily telling lies. They may not be telling the truth, either. False memories are linked to stressful events. Conformity is common in situations of uncertainty. Solomon Asch famously demonstrated that conformity can even make people assert what they know to be untrue.
In the immediate aftermath of the blast, some of the men in the unit feared they had been the ones who shot Peralta, according to Allen. Tony Gonzales, a corporal who was outside the house, said one of the Marines approached him, put a hand on his shoulder and wept.
“I shot Peralta with a three-burst round to the face,” the Marine told him, according to Gonzales. “He ran right in front of my line of fire.”
A new plot twist: a motivation for the myth. It is no accident that many Medal of Honor recipients are dead. They are unable to verify their own story personally. And what better way to cover up a tragic accident than to create a heroic myth? This allows the companions of the fallen, the family and the state to rest easy. He did not die in vain. He was a hero.
Brown, who said he dashed out of the house when he saw the grenade land on the floor, recalls feeling uncomfortable when he heard Marines in the squad suggest that they embellish the story of Peralta’s death. Another Marine who was outside the house and corroborated Brown’s account said the story of Peralta jumping on the grenade didn’t feel like a coverup at the time.
“Looking back, I truly believe it was something they wanted to be noble,” said the Marine, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he remains in the service and does not want to be publicly associated with the controversy. “I don’t think it was something done to cover anything up. It was more like, this is something we should do for him.”
Allen was the closest person to the grenade other than Peralta and was severely wounded in the backside. As his comrades began treating his wounds, he said he heard Adam Morrison, another Marine in the room, say that Peralta had jumped on the grenade.
“That was the first I heard of it,” he said. “I had my eyes on the grenade.”
Allen said he doesn’t think anyone acted maliciously. “Many people thought they had shot him,” he said. “That’s why the story was created. It just happened organically.”
It just happened organically. And that seems to be the most truthful statement. It was a perfect storm: guilt, conformity, and a desire to lionize the man. Nobody can rationalize a young man shot in the head by his own team. This is a senseless death. His life meant nothing. He did die in vain.