They had followed him across the country and back, from one military base to another.
On Wednesday, Army Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar’s wife and five children followed him one last time: six figures, dressed in black, walking behind the caisson that carried his casket through Arlington National Cemetery.
As men in uniform lifted the flag-draped casket off the back of the horse-drawn carriage and marched across the grass, the fallen soldier’s 4-year-old son raised a small hand in salute.
De Alencar, 37, was killed April 8 when his Special Forces unit clashed with Islamic State fighters in eastern Afghanistan.
He was the first American killed in combat in Afghanistan in more than four months. Now his death could mark the beginning of a new stage in America’s longest war.
Five days after he died, U.S. forces dropped a 22,000-pound explosive — nicknamed “the mother of all bombs” — near where De Alencar was shot. Since then, two more American soldiers have been killed fighting the Islamic State in the same area.
De Alencar’s burial comes as the Trump administration weighs a re-escalation of the war in Afghanistan, which has lasted more than 15 years and claimed the lives of 1,865 U.S. service members in combat.
The president has declined to say whether he personally ordered the use of one of the largest non-nuclear bombs in the U.S. arsenal, or whether its use was a response to De Alencar’s death.
But De Alencar’s relatives said they viewed the bombing as a show of support from Trump, and a sign that a forgotten war may be a priority again.
“It gave me reassurance that our president is going to put it out there that when it’s one of our own killed, we are going to retaliate,” said De Alencar’s wife, Natasha.
“It’s about time,” added his father, João. “We’ve been too soft for too many years.”
Mark De Alencar always dreamed of joining the Special Forces. The only surprise was how long it took him.
De Alencar grew up on a military base in Germany, where his Brazilian-born father was stationed with the U.S. Army. Once, when he was about 10 and on vacation on the French Riviera, De Alencar and another boy took a boat and began paddling into the Mediterranean. His parents called the police, but the boys were rescued by a boat full of Italian tourists.
“It was an adventure for him,” João De Alencar recalled.
“He always did things like that,” said his mother, Maria. “But he was never scared.”
When his family moved to Edgewood, Md., he was 12 and walked around the neighborhood in a bright yellow-and-green Brazil jersey, kicking a soccer ball.
“He’d always try to get us to play soccer with him,” recalled Michael Page, 38, who lived a few blocks away. “We were like, ‘C’mon, Mark. Play basketball.’ ”
As a teen, De Alencar grew to be over six feet tall. His size came in handy playing football for Joppatowne High School, and for navigating a sometimes dangerous neighborhood.
“Mark never instigated confrontation, but he would never back down from it,” Page said.
One night in 1997, Page was stabbed three times after a basketball game in the local park.
“I could hear the air slurping through my chest,” he said. As he stumbled home, Page spotted De Alencar, who raced to Page’s house and called an ambulance, then returned to take care of Page until it arrived.
“I always wonder how life would have turned out if I hadn’t run into him that night,” Page recalled. “He saved my life.”
De Alencar wanted to join the Army after graduating from Joppatowne in 1998, but an arrest for marijuana possession got in the way, according to his father, then a Baltimore police officer.
De Alencar found work as a carpenter, and he became a single father when his girlfriend committed suicide, leaving him with a young son.
Natasha was also a single parent, with two young children. She and Mark had been friends in high school. They reconnected in 2003 when De Alencar helped fix her mother’s car, began dating and then married several years later.
De Alencar earned a good income during the housing boom but always talked about trying again to enlist. When the housing market collapsed in 2009, he met with an Army recruiter. This time, De Alencar was accepted. He began boot camp in July 2009, deployed to Iraq a year later, then began training to try out for the Army Rangers.
In 2015, after Natasha had given birth to their fifth child, the family moved from a base in Hawaiito Fort Bragg, N.C., so that De Alencar could complete the grueling 18-month Special Forces qualification course.
Natasha worried about her husband’s safety but didn’t want to stand in his way.
“As a wife, you don’t want to be the roadblock keeping someone from doing what they want to do,” she said. “He always reassured me and the kids that it would be okay.”
Before De Alencar flew to Afghanistan on Feb. 11, he promised his 17-year-old daughter, Octavia, that he would be back in time to see her graduate on May 25. By then, they were living at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
At the airport, Natasha needled him, as she always did before he went away.
“Don’t die,” she said. “Come back, okay?”
The last time she spoke to him was March 31, the day before his 37th birthday. They talked about house-shopping together when he returned. Then he said he was about to go on a mission and wouldn’t be able to call for a while.
A week later, Natasha, her mother and the children had just returned from soccer practice when her 13-year-old daughter, Tatiyana, burst through the front door. She had been retrieving her headphones from the car when she spotted two men in uniforms walking toward the house.
Octavia peered outside and then raced upstairs, crying.
“Mom, you need to come here,” she said. “Two men are at the door like when something bad happens in the movies.”
“I literally froze,” Natasha recalled. When she finally was able to force herself to walk downstairs, the two Army men told her that her husband had been killed.
“I’ll never forget those super-white, clean gloves, or the expressionless look on their faces,” she said.
When her 15-year-old son, Rodrigo, realized what had happened, he hurled a television remote against the wall. Natasha asked her mother to break the news to her youngest son, Marcos.
“Your daddy went to heaven,” Yolanda Thornton told the 4-year-old.
Two days later, the family was present when De Alencar’s remains were removed from the plane at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
“That’s when it sank in for me,” Octavia said. Her father wouldn’t be able to watch her graduate, as he had promised. They wouldn’t go to Disneyland together as they had planned.
For Natasha, the pain comes in waves. It ebbs when she is with her children, only to rise when she is alone. “Nighttime is the worst,” she said.
On Monday, exactly a month after De Alencar’s death, his body lay in a white-lined casket in an Abingdon, Md., funeral home. On his medal-decorated chest lay a photo of him and Natasha inscribed with the words: “Our love.” Beside his head lay a blue Brazil soccer jersey.
“He wore this one all the time,” Rodrigo said, staring down at his father, who still wore a patchy Special Forces beard.
Marcos, not yet in kindergarten, played with his cousins on a nearby couch.
“I’m gonna look at my dad,” he announced at one point, climbing up onto a bench beside the coffin, then quickly running away.
“That’s creepy,” he said.
On Wednesday, Marcos sat between his two older sisters, swinging his feet as a military chaplain spoke about sacrifice. He covered his ears as a firing party unleashed three volleys into the cloud-dappled sky.
A military band played “America the Beautiful” as soldiers folded the flag that had draped the silver casket. Army Brig. Gen. Antonio Fletcher presented the flag to Natasha De Alencar, who clutched it to her chest as she wept behind black sunglasses.
Fletcher then gave flags to De Alencar’s children, kneeling low to give Marcos his before patting the boy solemnly on the head.