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11 years after Marine's death in Fallujah, family finally accepts his Navy Cross

After a decade fighting authorities saying her son deserved the nation's highest honor - the Medal of Honor - Rafael Peralta's mother received the Navy Cross on his behalf at a ceremony at Camp Pendelton Monday. It is is the second-highest combat decoration a Marine can receive for gallantry in action.

"Me standing here is testament that he saved my life," said Staff Sergeant Adam Morrison, 30, who was feet away from Peralta during the assault. "He truly saved my life and he deserves the highest respect."

The effort to get Peralta, 25, the Medal of Honor started soon after his death. Peralta was killed in house-to-house fighting during the brutal battle for Fallujah, Iraq, on November 15, 2004. Peralta led an assault on an insurgent-controlled house. First through the door when enemy fighters shot at the Marines with automatic weapons, he was hit repeatedly.

Morrison said he saw Peralta grab an enemy hand grenade thrown at him, and pull it under his body to shield his fellow Marines.

The nomination for the Medal of Honor made its way up the chain of command and was initially approved by Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. That's when medical doctors reviewing Peralta's medical records said that there was no way Peralta could have grabbed the grenade given the wounds he'd already suffered.

Peralta's Navy Cross was approved in 2008, but his family declined the award and decided to keep fighting for the Medal of Honor instead.

The family's stance changed after the Navy announced they'd name their newest warship, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, after him.

"My mom starting attending these ceremonies for the ship and that's where she tells me where she felt --  for the first time -- something that displayed his spirit and essence so that gave her a complete change of heart," said Ricardo Peralta.

He said his mother, Rosa Peralta, "thought it was appropriate for now, for her to receive the Navy Cross in order to hold on to it for a while and then eventually offer it to the ship in October." She declined to comment Monday.

The USS Rafael Peralta (DDG 115) will be christened and launched into the water in October.

There has yet to be a living Medal of Honor recipient from Operation Iraqi Freedom. The nomination and approval process for that award is closely held inside the Pentagon in an effort to keep it free of political influence.

All four of the Medals of Honor from that conflict have been posthumous.

One person who many believe deserves the Medal of Honor is Sergeant Major Bradley Kasal, who was awarded the Navy Cross instead in 2006. Kasal attended Monday's ceremony in his capacity as the new senior enlisted advisor of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

The Navy Cross is rarely awarded. Current Navy Secretary, Ray Mabus - who delivered the award to Rosa Peralta Monday - said he has awarded only two other Navy Crosses to Marines at Camp Pendleton in the six years he's been in office.

"Rafael Peralta was the epitome of the Marine Corps motto: 'Semper Fidelis.' Always Faithful," Mabus said. He said Peralta "put Marines' lives ahead of his own."

Peralta was born in Mexico, and lived in Tijuana as a child. He came to America as a teenager with his family and later enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.

Morrison said bone fragments from Peralta's body were blown into his legs from the grenade's blast.

He said without Peralta's sacrifice, his three children would have never been born. His wife is pregnant with their fourth child. Morrison is a Purple Heart recipient and veteran of two deployments each to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among those who lobbied for Peralta to receive the Medal of Honor is the congressman representing Peralta's home district, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter (R-Calif.), himself a Major in the Marine Corps Reserve.

Corporal Jason Dunham, Petty Officer Michael Monsoor, and Specialist Ross McGinnis all received posthumous Medals of Honor for sacrificing their lives in Iraq by purposefully using their own bodies to shield others from hand grenades thrown at them by enemy fighters, according to government documents.

At the event Monday, Hunter said successive Secretaries of Defense declined to review Peralta's nomination, and so the Navy Cross was awarded instead.

It could be upgraded to a Medal of Honor in the future. Mabus deflected questions from reporters who asked if Monday's ceremony marked the end of that effort.

"It highlights what every service member is willing to do for everybody else: in other words, it is the rest of the team first before themselves," said Lieutenant General David H. Berger, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. "That fast: Grenade on the floor. No thinking at all. No time to think. Just immediate reaction to save my fellow Marines."