A display case holds various personal items and medals from Rafael Peralta at his family home in Chula Vista, Calif. (Sandy Huffaker/For The Washington Post)

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.

The tale of heroism has become emblematic of Marine valor in wartime. But new accounts from comrades who fought alongside Peralta that day suggest it may not be true. In interviews, two former Marines who were with Peralta in the house when he was shot said the story was concocted spontaneously in the minutes after he was mortally wounded — likely because several of the men in the unit feared they might have been the ones who shot him.

“It has always bugged me,” said Davi Allen, a Marine who was wounded in the grenade blast and who said he watched it detonate near, but not underneath, Peralta. After years of sticking to the prevailing narrative, Allen, 30, said he recently decided to tell the truth. “I knew it’s not the truth. But who wants to be the one to tell a family: ‘Your son was not a hero’?”

Reggie Brown, another Marine who was with Peralta that day, said that as members of the squad scrambled away from the blast, one of them said that claiming that Peralta had jumped on the grenade would be a good way to honor his legacy.

“I can remember people saying it would be the right thing to do, to say that he did more than he did,” Brown, 31, said in an interview, speaking publicly about the case for the first time. “I disagree with everything my fellow Marines proclaim to have seen.”

The Navy’s years-long effort to award Peralta the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest decoration for courage on the battlefield, has been stymied by military physicians who have studied the case and determined that the forensic evidence made the grenade-thwarting accounts implausible. That finding has infuriated many Marines over the years.

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.”

Rosa Peralta holds her son’s jacket. (Sandy Huffaker/For The Washington Post)
A dream deferred

Peralta’s desire to become a Marine was sparked shortly after he moved to California as a teenager. A native of Mexico, he had moved from Tijuana to San Diego after his mother grew concerned that he could get swept up in gang violence. In the family’s early years in the United States, his mother became enchanted by a Marine recruiting ad on television. In the spot, a dapper young man slays a dragon with a sword and later appears in the service’s dress uniform as a crowd cheers behind him.

“What a beautiful man!” Rosa Peralta remembers telling her son. “I want you to be like that man one day.”

The dream was deferred a few years because Rafael Peralta was an undocumented immigrant during his first years in San Diego. He enlisted the day his green card arrived in the mail in 2000.

For his mother, the reality of having a son in the Marines was far harder than she expected. She was frightened to see her elder son ship out in 2004 to Anbar province, the war’s deadliest battleground for U.S. troops. As his unit was being readied for the second battle of Fallujah, during which Marines fought pitched street battles clearing insurgents from house to house, the 25-year-old sergeant had a premonition that he would not survive the operation.

Rosa Peralta holds the last letter her son sent before he was killed in battle in Iraq. (Sandy Huffaker/For The Washington Post)

He wrote his younger brother a letter telling him that he needed to be ready to be the man of the house. In his last phone call home, he told Rosa to be strong and to take care of his siblings, and he apologized for the grief he had caused her.

“I’m sorry for ruining your credit,” he told her, recalling late payments for a car he bought in her name.

Conflicting accounts

On the morning of Nov. 15, eight days into the operation, Peralta’s team came under fire after entering a house. The Marines shot back as they scrambled to ascertain where the insurgents were firing from. A handful of the infantrymen saw Peralta drop to the floor. Seconds later, an Iraqi grenade landed near him and exploded.

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.”

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.”

In written statements about the firefight collected by the Marine Corps, several Marines described having seen Peralta take the brunt of the blast after pulling the grenade underneath his body. Two Marines who were in the house that day and have described having witnessed Peralta scoop up the grenade said in interviews this week that the account they told then and have repeated over the years is truthful.

Nicholas Jones, the squad leader, called Brown’s account “ridiculous,” adding that there was “no effort to come up with a conspiracy theory.” Robert Reynolds said that what he witnessed that day is the type of heroism “you only hear about in boot camp. To live it out was unreal.”

Reynolds said Peralta saved his life that morning. “He gave me a chance to a second life,” he said. He said the notion that Marines had agreed to make up the story was impossible, noting that he and others were medically evacuated soon after the blast.

Morrison, a staff sergeant who remains in the Marines and has not spoken publicly about the Peralta case, said this week that he did not wish to discuss his memories from that day in detail on the record.

“I fully respect and honor both viewpoints of the Marines that have testified to this event and I have nothing but the highest esteem for all those who were there and fought alongside Sgt. Peralta,” he said in an e-mail. “I am honored to have been trained and fought alongside Sgt. Peralta. I believe Sgt. Peralta saved my life.”

Two Purple Hearts are among the items in a display case in Sgt. Rafael Peralta’s family home. (Sandy Huffaker/For The Washington Post)
Red flags are raised

Days after the fight, a Marine combat journalist who was with the unit that day penned a gripping firsthand account of the battle, claiming that three insurgents firing Kalashnikov rifles shot Peralta “at point-blank range” in the torso and face.

“In an act living up to the heroes of the Marine Corps’ past, . . . Peralta — in his last fleeting moments of consciousness — reached out and pulled the grenade into his body,” Travis J. Kaemmerer wrote in an account that remains on a Marine Corps Web site. Kaemmerer died in a car accident in Virginia in 2006.

The story quickly became national news in the United States and provided a measure of comfort to Rosa Peralta.

“I don’t have the slightest doubt that he did that for his comrades,” she said in a recent interview. “I know he would have given it all for his friends.”

President George W. Bush paid tribute to the Marine’s heroism in a radio address broadcast Memorial Day weekend in 2005, saying that “Sergeant Peralta gave his life to save his fellow Marines.”

The first packet of evidence the Marine Corps submitted supporting a Medal of Honor had to undergo a second review to attempt to reconcile the eyewitness accounts with the conclusions of forensic doctors. The physicians had concluded that Peralta’s gunshot wound would have rendered him unable to respond to the grenade seconds later.

The Navy moved forward with the package after getting alternate opinions from other forensic experts and conducting new interviews with eyewitnesses.

Two of those interviews raised red flags about the veracity of the story, according to documents reviewed by The Washington Post. Gonzales said in a Nov. 9, 2005, sworn statement that there was a debate among Marines about whether the tale of heroism was true and that a sergeant was pressuring some to stick to the story since the case would probably be submitted for a Medal of Honor.

Allen said in a Nov. 14, 2005, sworn statement that when he was being treated for his wounds, the then-acting platoon sergeant visited him.

“He told me to ‘do what’s right,’ which I interpreted to mean provide a statement that included Sgt. Peralta jumping on or swooping the grenade under his body or otherwise making his actions more valorous than they actually were,” the statement said. Allen said he was vague when he provided the statement, saying he had not seen whether Peralta covered the grenade.

A Marine colonel assigned to investigate the facts wrote in a Nov. 17, 2005, report that he explored those allegations but became convinced that the Marines who testified to Peralta’s actions “gave an honest account.” He also found that Peralta was “probably” shot by friendly fire and listed both the gunshot and shrapnel wounds from the grenade as the cause of death. The Marine Corps does not count Peralta’s death as one of its six friendly fire cases from the Iraq war.

The revised petition was presented to then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates after the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Navy signed off on it. It included dissenting views from medical experts and the undersecretary for personnel and readiness. Gates wrote in his recent memoir, “Duty,” that he approved the petition after speaking to officers in Peralta’s chain of command and signed the recommendation that would be sent to the White House.

But Gates disclosed in the book that after someone threatened to file a complaint with the Pentagon’s inspector general, he appointed a senior panel of independent experts to review the case. In August 2008, the five panel members, who were given access to all of the available records, reached the unanimous conclusion that Peralta could not have deliberately pulled the grenade under his body after he was shot.

In the recent interview, Rosa Peralta said she has come to terms with the possibility that her son may have been shot by a comrade, but she said the evidence that Marine Corps officials have shared with her makes her certain he died heroically.

Having failed to get him the Medal of Honor, the Navy would instead award Peralta the Navy Cross, a worthy recognition of the way he died.

“Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, Sergeant 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 read.

Rosa Peralta, holding out for the nation’s highest honor, never picked it up.

Rosa Peralta has come to terms with the possibility that her son, Sgt. Rafael Peralta, may have been shot by a comrade in Iraq, but she remains certain he died heroically. (Sandy Huffaker/For The Washington Post)

Julie Tate contributed to this report.