As violent protests continued in Afghanistan over the burning of copies of the Muslim holy book by NATO forces, the Pentagon confirmed Monday that a Maryland National Guard major was one of two U.S. military officers shot to death inside a ministry building in the heart of the Afghan capital over the weekend.
Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II, 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. It was his first deployment to Afghanistan.
"We never thought this would happen," Ian Marchanti, his 18-year-old son, said Monday at the family home in Gardenville. "Things seemed pretty calm. We would get worried once in a while, but we thought he was safe."
Afghan officials say they have launched a nationwide search for a suspect in the attack Saturday at the supposedly secure Interior Ministry offices in Kabul. The shootings came days after the burning of Qurans at a military base in Bagram last week ignited violent protests that continue to rage.
The unrest, which included a suicide bomb attack Monday that left nine dead at a military airport in eastern Afghanistan, has cast further doubt over the viability of the U.S. mission there. On Thursday, an Afghan soldier shot and killed two American troops outside a U.S. base in Nangarhar province, and about three dozen Afghans have died in protests in the past week.
More than a decade into the war, the United States had shifted its focus to training Afghan security forces to protect the country's embattled central government after most foreign troops leave in 2014.
But Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has recalled personnel from Afghan ministries. Officials have described the move as temporary, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker has said the United States remains committed to the country.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Major Marchanti's congressman, said it remains unclear whether the shootings were connected to the disposal of copies of the Quran in a burning trash pit at Bagram.
The Baltimore County Democrat, a member of the House intelligence and armed services committess, described events of the past week as "a very difficult situation."
"We're very aggressively attempting to train the Afghan military and security forces," said Mr. Ruppersberger. "With this situation, we might have to go into more depth on those individuals that we're working with and helping to train."
Maj. Gen. James A. Adkins, the commander of the Maryland National Guard, met with Major Marchanti's unit during a trip to Afghanistan around the new year.
"They were doing very well, all proud to serve the nation," he said.
General Adkins spoke after attending a meeting in Washington on Monday among governors, state National Guard leaders, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other Pentagon officials.
"I think we were all on a path to reducing our forces in Afghanistan by 2014," he said. "The real question is going to be answered by those in Washington — and I don't think there is an answer yet — but what will be our plan. The situation is evolving quickly and is providing numerous challenges. …
"Our job back here is to make sure we're prepared to go, to answer the call when the president and the Department of Defense ask us to serve."
Major Marchanti and Air Force Lt. Col. John D. Loftis were working Saturday afternoon in a small room at the National Police Coordination Center when the gunman entered the room, officials said.
Workers elsewhere at the Interior Ministry heard two gunshots. They entered to find Major Marchanti and Colonel Loftis, each with a single gunshot wound to the head.
Their efforts to revive the officers were unsuccessful.
Major Marchanti, who was assigned to the 29th Infantry Division Security Partnering Team II, was the fourth Maryland Guard member to be killed in Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, and the 12th to die in the war on terror.
Married with four children and a grandson, he had been due to return from his one-year deployment in September.
Ian Marchanti said the family had been planning a trip, possibly to Puerto Rico, when his father came home.
"This just does not feel real," he said. "One day we are planning a vacation, and then my mother is traveling to Dover," the Delaware air base where Major Marchanti's body arrived late Monday.
Robert and Peggy Marchanti were in high school when they met as co-workers at a Friendly's restaurant in Gardenville, Ian Marchanti said. He took her to her senior prom; they were married for 24 years.
Peggy Marchanti traveled to Dover Air Force Base on Monday to accept her husband's remains.
Major Marchanti joined the Army in 1984 and the Maryland National Guard in 1986, Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Charles S. Kohler said. He wrestled at what was then Towson State University.
After graduating from Towson in 1989, Major Marchanti taught for 17 years in the Baltimore County schools, with stops at Bedford, Victory Villa, Mars Estates, Dundalk and Carney elementary schools and the Carver Center for the Arts and Technology.
Ian Marchanti said his father loved teaching, particularly when it came to children with special needs. He described his father as a true Christian and said that "he never hesitated to tell a child that he was praying for them."
Fellow physical-education teacher Bill Adey worked with Major Marchanti at Carney Elementary School in Parkville.
"He had a real good way with kids, and they really responded to him," Mr. Adey said. "He also had a strong impact on all of us who taught with him. It was really a pleasure to work with him. He would get involved in the classrooms and help other teachers when he had free time."
Major Marchanti left teaching in 2008 for a full-time job with the National Guard. He worked at the 5th Regiment Armory in Baltimore as a construction and facilities management technician.
Colonel Kohler described Marchanti as a "gentle giant."
"He was a really nice, unassuming person," he said. "He's a big guy, [a] strong powerful guy. You meet him, right away you could tell he's physically fit. But he's just a quiet, unassuming person. He's just a true gentleman and someone who was well-liked by everybody."
Ian Marchanti said his parents remained in close contact during deployments.
"I heard them talking every morning," he said. "I think he was more nervous that my twin brother and I got our driving licenses then he was about being over there. This was just another tour, and we have gotten used to them."
General Adkins, the Maryland Guard commander, described Marchanti as "a great officer" with "great potential."
"I knew him well and respected him," he said.
He informed fellow Guard members of the loss in an e-mail Monday.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Marchanti family during this most difficult time," General Adkins said. "It is impossible for most of us to understand the emotional turmoil they must be going through.
"The loss of one of our own is always very difficult, and little can be said to ease the pain, but we will always remember Rob's dedication to our nation as we honor his service and sacrifice."
Major Marchanti is survived by his wife; children Aaron, Leah, Ian and Jonah; and a 3-year-old grandson.
A week of unrest
Tuesday, Feb. 21
More than 2,000 Afghans protest the disposal of the Quran and other Muslim holy books in a burning trash pit at Bargam Air Base. Gen. John R. Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, apologizes. Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemns incident, demands an investigation.
Protests across Afghanistan leave at least seven Afghans dead and dozens wounded. Karzai issues a statement appealing for calm.
President Barack Obama apologizes in a letter to Karzai. Two U.S. military police officers shot to death by Afghan soldier outside U.S. base in Eastern Afghanistan.
Maryland National Guard Maj. Robert J. Marchanti II of Gardenville and Air Force Lt. Col. John D. Loftis of Paducah, Ky., are shot to death while working inside Interior Ministry building in Kabul. Allen recalls NATO personnel from Afghan ministries.
Ambassador Ryan Crocker says U.S. remains committed to Afghanistan. Senior Afghan officials cancel a trip to Washington to meet with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. Demonstrators throw grenades, exchange fire at a U.S. base in Northern Afghanistan; two Afghans dead, seven NATO troops injured.
Suicide car bomber crashes into military airport in Eastern Afghanistan, killing six civilians, two guards and a soldier.
Compiled from wire reports