Maj. Gen. James A. Adkins, the commander of the Maryland National Guard, visited with Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II last fall as he drilled at an Army base in Virginia.
"He was so proud of his soldiers and what they had accomplished," Adkins said Thursday at a Fallen Warrior Memorial Service for the slain guardsman. "When we were out on the rifle range, I watched him work the firing line much like a coach would work the sideline at a football game.
"For some of us, we have to work hard at leadership. But to Bob, it came naturally. He enjoyed leading. He enjoyed being with soldiers."
Five hundred Maryland Guard members gathered at the Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore to honor Marchanti and to grieve his loss.
Marchanti, a 25-year member of the Guard, was one of two officers killed last month in Afghanistan amid the violent unrest that followed the burning of copies of the Muslim holy book at a NATO base in the country. He and Air Force Lt. Col. John D. Loftis of Kentucky had been working at the Ministry of the Interior in Kabul to help train the Afghan National Police.
The Gardenville man, a longtime physical education teacher in Baltimore County, was 48. He was the fourth Maryland Guard member killed in Afghanistan, and the 12th to die since Sept. 11, 2001.
At the center of the armory hall stood a battlefield cross, a memorial consisting of a helmet atop a rifle and a pair of combat boots.
First Sgt. Perlisa D. Wilson stood before a formation of soldiers and called the roll.
"Major Robert Marchanti?"
The hall was silent.
The Marchanti family has announced a funeral for March 19. The memorial service Thursday was closed to the public. The officers who spoke directed their comments to their fellow Guard members.
"We have lost one of our best," Adkins said. "From private to general, know that it is OK to grieve. Know that it is OK to feel this great loss."
Marchanti left teaching in 2008 to work full-time for the state Guard as planning and programming chief for construction and facilities management. He was based at the Fifth Regiment Armory.
Lt. Col. Christopher Cole, the Guard's construction and facilities management officer, said Marchanti's accomplishments included securing final design approval for readiness centers in Dundalk, Westminster and Charles County, among other projects.
"I cannot overstate what Bob has accomplished here," Cole said. "These projects take years to get approved."
Cole also worked with Marchanti in Kabul, where he said his experience as a teacher, his calm demeanor and his determination made him "a great adviser for Afghanistan."
"The first time you meet Bob, you notice his size," Cole said. "Big arms, big neck, barrel chest, big head. On that head a crew cut, tightly shaved on the sides, his peppered hair with a little track on the top.
"So the first time you meet Bob, you're thinking this is Mad Max and WWF rolled in together and you say to yourself, 'I hope I never get this guy angry.' …
"I don't think I ever saw him mad. Regardless of the circumstances, Bob's demeanor did not change."
It was Cole who escorted Marchanti's body back to the United States. His voice broke as he spoke of the "gentle giant."
"The tragedy that took Maj. Bob Marchanti and Lt. Col. J.D. Loftis will change how we work with our Afghan partners," he said. "But we will re-engage with them. We will work with them again. One, that's what Bob would have wanted us to do. And two, we'll do it to honor him."
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