In awkward efforts to console her, some people questioned the purpose of the long U.S. war in Afghanistan and, thereby, her husband’s death. It hurt to hear such comments, but Peggy Marchanti came to terms with the meaning of her husband’s service and his sacrifice in the weeks after his burial in Arlington National Cemetery.
And she made a kind assessment of the people who had inadvertently made unkind remarks.
“As soon as he died, there were always people who said, ‘We shouldn’t be there, these lives are being wasted,’” she recalled this week when we spoke by phone. “So that was very hurtful years ago, but I came to terms with that. I kind of dealt with it and realized it wasn’t meant to hurt me. People were just really concerned for the lives being lost.”
And of her husband, she said: “I could never say his life was wasted or squandered because he was trying to help. They did do good things there.”
Robert (Bob) J. Marchanti II was a 48-year-old major in the Maryland National Guard and a former physical education teacher in the Baltimore County schools. His death on Feb. 25, 2012, came as he was trying to mentor the Afghan National Police, part of U.S. efforts to train security forces to protect the country’s embattled government. Marchanti and another officer, Air Force Lt. Col. John D. Loftis, were victims of an insider attack — fatally shot by an Afghan police officer while inside the supposedly secure Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul. The burning of Qurans by NATO personnel days earlier at a military base in Bagram had ignited violent protests and sparked retaliatory violence against American soldiers. “The unrest,” the Sun reported at the time, “has cast further doubt over the viability of the U.S. mission.”
The mission was 11 years old by then, a little past the halfway point in America’s longest war. Marchanti was the fourth Maryland National Guard member to be killed in Afghanistan since 9/11 and the invasion of the country.
Twenty years on, as Peggy Marchanti watches the collapse of the Afghan government and the return of the Taliban to power after the U.S. withdrawal, some friends expect her to be outraged, but she doesn’t spend a lot of time there.
“At first I was,” she said, “but then after the withdrawal, I watched a lot of different news programs and I was like, ‘It’s time, it’s probably way past time to be gone.’ And then, when I came to terms with that, thinking [the troops] are gone, it was such a relief. My God, they’re gone. No more of this. No other wife or mother is going to have to hear …”
Hear what she heard that day in 2012 when two soldiers came to her front door in Gardenville to tell her about Bob.
They had known each other since they were 18 and both worked at a Friendly’s. He graduated from what was then Towson State University and took a teaching job with the county. His favorite assignment was working with children with autism at Carney Elementary School. “He loved those kids, they loved him,” his wife said.
But the school system sent him to other county schools, some of them very challenging. After 17 years, he felt some burnout and an urge for something different. He got a job as a facilities management technician, overseeing upgrades to National Guard armories. His deployment to Afghanistan was his first there; it was due to end in September 2012.
The Marchantis had four children, and I asked Peggy about each of them. The oldest son, Aaron, 34, was a Baltimore firefighter until he moved his family to the Dominican Republic and a new job. A daughter, Leah, 28, is a nurse practitioner. Another son, Jonah, 27, is a city firefighter, and his twin brother, Ian, works for a publisher in Baltimore.
Peggy Marchanti keeps in touch with Holly Loftis, who became a war widow the same day she did. She hears from soldiers who served with her husband. She spoke with a general a while back who said, with respect and apology, that he didn’t believe the U.S. mission in Afghanistan would ever succeed.
And now it’s over.
Peggy spends a lot of time babysitting her grandchildren; she recently took one of them, 12-year-old Malachi, to visit his grandfather’s grave in Arlington. She writes expressions, some of them from the Bible, on stones and leaves them on Bob’s headstone. Sometimes she leaves a photograph.
“In Afghanistan, there’s a playground that was dedicated to him,” she said. “There’s a plaque and they asked me what I wanted to put on it and it was a Bible verse, from the New Testament. And I thought they’d never do that, but they did.”
The verse is from Corinthians, “Lover never fails.” With the Taliban in Kabul, she wonders what will happen to the playground — or, at least, the plaque.
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“Bob told me a story once of an Afghan general who was talking to him,” she said. “Of course, they had an interpreter. And this Afghan general was putting his hand over his heart, and Bob asked the interpreter, ‘What’s he saying?’ And the interpreter said, ‘He’s telling you you have a good heart.’ I don’t know where that Afghan general is now. But I hope he got out, I hope he’s not there anymore.”