Just before Christmas, Peggy and Robert Marchanti spoke via Skype about presents he could give to the Afghan officers he had been working with. The Army National Guard officer told his wife back in Baltimore that he was making real progress in his efforts to train local police and wanted to show his gratitude.
She wondered what to ship to Afghanistan for men she had never met. The couple, who spoke to each other nearly every day, came up with a simple but useful present.
"There are lots of almonds there, but nothing to open them with," she recalled Wednesday from her Gardenville home, speaking publicly for the first time since Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II was killed. "They actually smash them with their shoes. So I sent lots of nutcrackers."
She said she bears no rancor for the Afghan people that her husband died trying to help. But others have criticized the violence that took his life.
His death Saturday came days after the burning of Qurans at a U.S. military base ignited a fierce reaction across Afghanistan. And the ensuing bloodshed has reverberated in American politics. In an exchange Tuesday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said she could understand the animosity over the burning of sacred books but not the intense reaction.
"But passion and anger is not equivalent to assassination," said Mikulski, a Democrat. "My question is, what do we tell his family? What do I tell his family today? Was it worth it?"
Clinton responded that "there aren't any words that can tell a wife and four children and friends and colleagues why any kind of death in combat and service to our country is explicable."
The 48-year-old major had been working with the Afghan national police during his first deployment to the war-torn country. He and Lt. Col. John D. Loftis of Kentucky were shot to death inside the National Police Coordination Center, a supposedly secure ministry building in the heart of Kabul.
Peggy Marchanti said lending a hand was part of her husband's nature. He had been a respected physical- education teacher for 17 years in various Baltimore County schools before taking a full-time position with the Maryland National Guard in 2008.
"He loved what he was doing there and really wanted to make a difference," she said. "I am sure that he did. He often told me that the Afghan generals loved him."
Since he deployed in September, Robert Marchanti kept in touch daily with his family, mostly through Skype and email. "I heard my parents talking every morning," said son Ian Marchanti, 18.
Their last conversations involved plans for splurging on a family vacation when he returned.
"All we can do now is be strong for each other," said Leah Marchanti, 20, their only daughter. She had been living on her own but decided to move back to support her mother and three brothers.
"We will get through this, and we all will grow stronger," said eldest son Aaron Marchanti, a Baltimore firefighter.
Peggy Marchanti said she is grateful for all the support over the past few days.
"This war has gone on so long and so many have died, I was afraid he might be forgotten," she said. "But I know that so many people really care about him. I didn't realize that until now. My husband is a hero here and in Afghanistan."
As has happened often in the last few days, a stranger came Wednesday to the door of the home that the couple shared throughout 24 years of marriage.
John Birmingham, operations director of the American Heroes Memorial Vehicle, stopped by to offer condolences. Peggy and Aaron Marchanti welcomed him.
She acknowledged, "I am not doing so well." But within minutes, all three were hugging.
Birmingham was en route from Florida to his home in Maine when he detoured to visit the Marchantis. He arrived in a 1998 Mercedes sedan with a license plate that read "AMHERO." The car was decorated with American symbols. The driver of what he calls a mobile tribute vehicle was making the second of three condolence calls to bereaved military families along the East Coast.
Eventually, he hopes to dedicate several racecars to fallen military personnel and enter them in various competitions.
"We are doing this to offer support to families of the fallen," said Birmingham, who served seven years in the Maine National Guard. "We want them to know we will do everything we can to keep memories of their heroes alive and support the troops that are still fighting over there."
Birmingham said families have welcomed him with open arms. "I just show up out of the blue to tell them thank you," he said. He often returns to a car surrounded by curious onlookers. When he explains its purpose, he frequently hears the story of another family's loss.
Surrounded by her three sons, Peggy Marchanti shot photos of the car from several angles. Aaron extended his arm across her shoulders. Ian pulled up the hood of her sweater when it started to rain, and his twin brother, Jonah, wrapped her in a heavy sweatshirt to keep her warm.
The family has not set a date for a memorial service but they anticipate a viewing at Evans Funeral Home in Parkville and a church service at Trinity Assembly of God in Lutherville. Burial with military honors will be at Arlington National Cemetery.
Baltimore Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.