SAN DIEGO — Right about now, President Barack Obama should be busy shopping for the perfect Christmas gift to thank Latino voters for helping re-elect him.
I have a suggestion.
Of course, Obama didn’t deserve to win 71 percent of the Latino vote, not with his aggressive record of deporting immigrants and his less-aggressive record of tackling high unemployment and lagging educational achievement in the Latino community. And yet, with a helpful assist from a feckless opponent whose Latino outreach efforts were a few tacos short of a combination plate, Obama scored big with those voters.
The president will probably not pay it back with Cabinet nominations. There are only four posts that matter – attorney general, State, Defense and Treasury. Only one Latino has ever held one of those jobs. Alberto Gonzales served as attorney general from 2005 to 2007, and he was nominated by a Republican – George W. Bush.
If Obama does put Latinos on his Cabinet, he is most likely to place them where they usually go – second-tier departments such as labor, housing, energy or interior. For their loyalty, Latinos will get leftovers.
As for my suggestion, there is one thing that Obama could do to honor Latinos. It’s a symbolic gesture but one that would have special significance for a population well-versed in the concepts of service and sacrifice.
Obama could award the Medal of Honor posthumously to San Diego Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, a 25-year-old Mexican immigrant serviceman who was killed in Iraq in 2004 and whose family has been jerked around by the Pentagon ever since.
Peralta was a former illegal immigrant who joined the Marines on the very day that he received his green card. He eventually became a U.S. citizen. And he also became what his comrades respectfully called “a Marine’s Marine,” building a reputation as a leader who always put his men first.
According to a half-dozen Marines who were there and saw the events unfold, that’s exactly what Peralta did Nov. 15, 2004. While exchanging fire with the enemy in Fallujah, Peralta was shot in the head. And yet, the Marines say, when a grenade landed near him, he was able to grab it and tuck it into his chest. He gave his life to save the lives of other Marines.
If that’s not heroism, then the word has no meaning.
Yet the Defense Department has refused to nominate Peralta for the Medal of Honor. It gave him the Navy Cross, and even that came only after a public outcry. His family turned it down.
All this because a panel of military doctors who were nowhere near Fallujah that day looked at the forensic evidence and concluded that – never mind what his comrades on the ground claim they saw – the bullet that hit Peralta probably killed him and so he must have fallen on the grenade.
The doctors are wrong. Who says? The Marine Corps, U.S. Central Command, and Peralta’s buddies in Alpha Company, that’s who. All of them have joined the family to ensure that a hero gets the recognition he has earned.
The Pentagon’s decision was appealed, and the bureaucracy doubled down this week on its mistake. According to the office of Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., himself an Iraq combat veteran who has championed Peralta’s cause, a military lawyer informed them that the Department of Defense still doubts that the Marine deserves the Medal of Honor.
For Latinos, this recognition is not something to be toyed with. To many of them, the Medal of Honor is nothing less than sacred. This is, after all, an ethnic group that holds the distinction of having the highest ratio of Medal of Honor recipients relative to their percentage of the population. To date, Latinos have received at least 43 medals.
And given the bravery of Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta, they feel cheated out of No. 44.
Obama can correct this injustice and, at the same time, honor a fallen hero. It’s the right thing to do, and this is a good time to do it.
Mr. President, make it happen.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at email@example.com.