By David Alexander
WASHINGTON, Feb 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has reviewed the case of a Marine sergeant honored for heroism in Iraq and agreed with two other Pentagon chiefs that the evidence is insufficient to merit the highest military award for valor, the Pentagon said on Friday.
Supporters have criticized the department for denying Marine Sergeant Rafael Peralta's nomination for the Medal of Honor for his actions in Fallujah in 2004, when pulled a grenade under his body to shield his comrades from the explosion, even as he was already dying of a fatal head wound.
The five members of his squad were eyewitnesses to Peralta's actions and nominated him for the honor, but some medical experts have raised doubts as to whether he could have consciously moved the grenade under his body given the damage caused by the bullet wound.
"After extensively familiarizing himself with the history of Sergeant Peralta's nomination, Secretary Hagel determined the totality of the evidence does not meet the 'proof beyond a reasonable doubt' Medal of Honor award standard," the Pentagon said in a statement.
Peralta's case has become a cause celebre among Marines and others. While Defense Secretary Robert Gates initially denied the Medal of Honor nomination, he approved Peralta for the Navy Cross, the second-highest military award for valor for members of the Navy and Marine Corps.
Supporters and lawmakers have continued to lobby for reconsideration of Peralta's case. Gates' successor, Leon Panetta, reviewed the case and decided against reopening it. Hagel became the third defense chief to examine the case, acting at the request of California lawmakers.
Although denied the Medal of Honor, Peralta has become a symbol of heroism among Marines and was further honored just last year by the Navy, which named its 65th Arleigh Burke-class destroyer after him.
A native of Mexico, Peralta immigrated illegally to the United States and graduated from high school in California. He joined the Marine Corps as soon as he received his legal residency card and later became a U.S. citizen.
Hagel's decision in the Peralta case coincided with a White House announcement that President Barack Obama will award the Medal of Honor to 24 Army veterans from Vietnam, Korea and World War Two, most of them Jews or Hispanics who may have been previously denied the award due to prejudice.
Obama will award the medals during a White House ceremony on March 18.
The announcement follows a 12-year review initiated by Congress in 2002. Lawmakers directed a review of service records from previous wars to ensure that Jewish or Hispanic soldiers were not awarded lesser medals due to prejudice.
During the course of the review, several soldiers who were not Jewish or Hispanic were found to meet the criteria for the medal and the law was amended to allow them to receive the honor as well.
Only three of the soldiers, all Vietnam veterans, are still living. The rest will receive the award posthumously.
This is not the first review to ensure prejudice was not a factor in the awarding the medal. An Army review in the 1990s looked at records from the Second World War and concluded that while no African Americans had received the Medal of Honor, seven should have qualified.
President Bill Clinton presented the awards in 1997.
A similar review of the records of Asian and Pacific Islander veterans from World War Two resulted in 22 Medals of Honor, which Clinton presented in 2000. (Reporting by David Alexander, editing by G Crosse)