A Mexican immigrant and marine who died in Iraq eight years ago – and whose family and lawmakers had been pushing for him to receive the Medal of Honor – will not receive the military’s highest distinction, the secretary of defense ruled Wednesday.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reaffirmed the ruling that Rafael Peralta will instead keep the Navy Cross awarded to him for his heroism during a 2004 battle in Iraq.

Nothing they give him will bring him back, but for me to stop fighting would be like saying I don’t believe what he did. It may take many more years, but we have to get him what he deserves.

- Peralta’s sister, Icela Donald

Peralta was leading a squad of Marines in Fallujah on Nov. 15, 2004. He and his team were searching a house for insurgents when they were met by enemy gunfire. During an ensuing gun battle, Peralta was shot by friendly fire.

Marines who were with him during the battle said an insurgent threw at grenade at the squad, and Peralta picked it up and placed it under his body, an act they claimed saved the lives of other Marines.

The Pentagon told Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) it supports the decision by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who ruled Peralta was not conscious and brain dead when his body smothered the grenade. Thus, his actions were not intentional, the report said.

The case was reopened this year after Hunter obtained a video of the battle action and a new forensics report. The lawmaker said the new evidence proved Peralta's actions were intentional.

But defense officials found the new evidence was not sufficient to change the decision, said Joe Kasper, Hunter's spokesman.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen said he could not discuss the case, citing Defense Department policy to not comment on Medal of Honor nominations under consideration.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told reporters during a visit to Camp Pendleton last week that he had recommended Peralta be honored with the Medal of Honor.

Peralta’s family said they will not stop trying to get Peralta an honor he rightfully deserves.

“Nothing they give him will bring him back, but for me to stop fighting would be like saying I don’t believe what he did,” Peralta’s sister, Icela Donald, told the U-T San Diego. “It may take many more years, but we have to get him what he deserves.”

The congressman, a former combat Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, has said he would continue to fight to get the medal upgraded.

With reporting by The Associated Press.

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