Dawn storms that shook white petals from early blooming dogwood trees at Arlington National Cemetery had just cleared as the flag-draped, horse-drawn coffin bearing the body of Army Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II crested the top of Marshall Drive on Tuesday morning.
A band played “Onward, Christian Soldiers” as the procession filed down the hill, a steady stream of those mourning the 48-year-old former Baltimore County teacher who was one of two U.S. soldiers killed in a Feb. 25 shooting inside the Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul.
The shootings, apparently by a rogue Afghan security officer, came days after NATO said its troops had inadvertently burned Korans at a military base in Bagram, sparking a slew of violent protests. The deaths of Marchanti and Air Force Lt. Col. John D. Loftis, inside what was presumed to be a secure government building, prompted the United States, France, Britain and NATO to pull personnel out of Afghan ministries.
But absent Tuesday morning were the political tensions that have surrounded Marchanti’s death. Save for the snapping of camera shutters that punctuated the measured lowering of the coffin, the service played out like so many others at Arlington.
Marchanti’s wife, Peggy, alternately dabbed her eyes and pulled strands of loose blond hair behind her ear, clasping and unclasping her son Aaron’s hand. She sat with her four children and her mother-in-law as the family was presented with six folded flags.
Most family members allowed the flags to rest in their laps. Marchanti’s mother, Betty Czaya, clasped hers to her chest and closed her eyes.
The procession began at 9:15 a.m. with the sounding of a drumroll. A color guard gave a three-volley salute, and Army Secretary John McHugh knelt to offer his condolences.
The ceremony was, as Marchanti’s daughter Leah, 20, had hoped the night before, a dignified way to say goodbye to her father.
“We have just tried to ignore the political, negative stuff,” Marchanti said. “We blank it out because we want to remember him for the incredible person he was.”
The man Leah Marchanti remembers cooked pasta on Sundays for his family, loved the Baltimore Ravens so much that he wore a jersey underneath his combat gear and looked forward to summer vacations in Ocean City. The word she has returned to consistently over the past few weeks as media have plied her to describe her father is “loving.”
Robert Marchanti, 48, taught physical education in Baltimore County schools before committing full time to the Maryland Army National Guard in 2008. He served in Kosovo, and the mission in Afghanistan was his second.
Marchanti was part of a NATO initiative that partnered U.S. troops with Afghan National Police.
“We were all scared for him,” Leah Marchanti said. “But that’s the sort of thing he would never show.”
The political polarization surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has added an undue burden for families who have lost relatives in combat, said Ami Neiberger-Miller, the public relations officer for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
Neiberger-Miller lost her brother, a soldier in Iraq, who was killed by a makeshift bomb in 2007.
“You see this pressure to pontificate,” Neiberger-Miller said. “But these deaths, these losses that have political significance, they’re just personal losses to the family.”
Leah Marchanti knows that burden well.
As media requests have flooded the Marchanti household, Leah has become the de facto spokeswoman. She said her family has embraced the support of the community and appreciates the outpouring of condolences. She has shared stories about her father’s life with reporters.
Mostly, though, she said the family is ready for quiet.
“We just want to grieve together,” Leah Marchanti said. “We need that.”