The wife and four children of Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II stood silently before his casket Monday. Their arms were wrapped firmly around one another in a display of family solidarity and devotion for the soldier killed in Afghanistan.
Hundreds of mourners, gathered at Trinity Assembly of God Church Monday, witnessed that endearing sight and listened as the family shared their memories and some of Marchanti's many missives to them.
"Words cannot express how sad we are today," said Aaron Marchanti, the oldest of three sons, who wore his Baltimore City firefighter's uniform. "My father was an honest, loyal, hardworking man, who taught me everything from throwing a ball to becoming a father myself."
His daughter Leah Marchanti called her father "the perfect image of love. He showed us how much he loved our mom. He served his country to the end and his was the biggest heart."
Major Marchanti, 48, a longtime physical-education teacher in the Baltimore County public schools, had been working since September as a mentor to the Afghan National Police, part of the NATO partnering mission at the center of U.S. strategy in the country, when he and another officer were shot at the Interior Ministry in Kabul. It was his first deployment to Afghanistan.
Afghan officials say they have launched a nationwide search for a suspect in the Feb. 25 attack. The shootings came days after the burning of Qurans at a military base in Bagram ignited violent protests.
"We hope they find the coward who did this," said Aaron Marchanti.
The family read from the soldier's letters. His words were imbued with his strong faith in God, his love of country and his constant concern for their welfare.
Peggy Marchanti spoke of their first date. She went to her high school prom with the guy who washed dishes at the Friendly's restaurant, where she served ice cream. The date led to a "roller-coaster marriage" of 25 years, all spent at the same modest home in Gardenville.
The congregation laughed when she told how he embarrassed his children in public by smothering their mother in a bear-hug and kiss and would constantly and loudly tell them, "I love your mommy."
Ian Marchanti said, "Despite that kind of emotional trauma, I hope to have a love like my parents'."
Peggy and Bob Marchanti never ended a phone call, e-mail or Skype without an "I love you," she said. The couple talked by Skype nearly every day during his deployment and at the end of each conversation, he held his wedding ring close to the camera and kissed it, she said.
He loved donning his military uniform, celebrated each promotion and felt certain he was helping the people of Afghanistan, she said. The family arranged to have the services Monday Skyped to Marchanti's unit in Kabul.
Her husband also was a born teacher, whose last job in Baltimore County schools was with special-needs children, she said.
"He wanted to be sure he was making a difference, especially in the lives of children," she said. "A candlelight vigil at Dundalk Elementary showed us how much of a difference."
His own children spoke of their father's corny jokes, his zest for life and his secret hand signals. They told how only he and Ian knew how to really enjoy and critique a funny movie and how they left the interminable fishing ventures to their brother Jonah, the quietest of the brood. Long hours of angling gave the pair hours to talk and his father never hesitated to add Scripture into their dialogues.
"I once told him I feared death and he told me he couldn't wait to get to heaven," Jonah Marchanti said.
The family repeatedly thanked those they had never met but who filled the sanctuary, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger.
"To know that he touched so many people's lives and that many who never knew him but are reaching out to us, honors us," said Leah Marchanti. "Seeing all these people shows us how he has changed the world."
Trinity's pastor, Kelly Harrison, said the family had only joined the church in Lutherville recently and he never met Marchanti. But, in the last weeks as he helped the family prepare for the service, he said, "I feel like I have gotten to know this man just from hearing the stories."
"Keep telling those Bob stories to honor his memory," Harrison said.
At the end of the service, the mourners watched in poignant silence as each elected official and each uniformed soldier walked in single file to the flag-draped casket and offered a formal salute. Aaron Marchanti joined the long line, saluted and kissed the flag-draped bier.
"He was not a complicated man," said Leah Marchanti. "He let his own walls down and he let everybody in."
Marchanti will be buried at 9 a.m. Tuesday with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.