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Bodies of slain U.S. officers return home

By Matt Smith, CNN
updated 7:07 AM EST, Tue February 28, 2012
Troops at Dover Air Force Base on Monday transfer the caskets of two U.S. officers who were killed in Afghanistan.
Troops at Dover Air Force Base on Monday transfer the caskets of two U.S. officers who were killed in Afghanistan.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lt. Col. John Loftis and Maj. Robert Marchanti II were killed Friday
  • They were killed in the spasm of violence that has wracked Afghanistan for a week
  • Marchanti was a "gentle giant" who taught in Maryland schools, a colleague said
  • Loftis had just marked his 44th birthday, his mother said

(CNN) -- Troops in white gloves and camouflage carried a pair of flag-draped caskets off an Air Force transport in Delaware Monday as the bodies of two senior U.S. military officers killed inside Afghanistan's interior ministry arrived home.

Air Force Lt. Col. John Loftis and Army Maj. Robert Marchanti II were gunned down Friday when an Afghan intelligence officer turned his gun on them inside the ministry, an Afghan counter-terrorism official told CNN. Loftis was a career Air Force officer, while Marchanti was a veteran of Maryland's National Guard.

The jet carrying their remains landed Monday afternoon at Dover Air Force Base.

Marchanti taught physical education in Baltimore County schools for 17 years before resigning to become a full-time, active-duty guardsman. His last assignment was at Carney Elementary, in Baltimore's northeastern suburbs, where kindergarten teacher Beth Avil described him as a "gentle giant."

"He was this big, burly guy, and here he was making these connections with these little tiny kindergarteners," she said. "You might think they'd be intimidated, but they had this instant bond."

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Marchanti "loved to work with struggling learners," tutoring them on reading skills in the school's computer lab, Avil said.

"We had a little celebration for him before he left," she said. "We had all the kindergarteners in one of the classrooms and made a book for him of him working with all the children in the computer labs, and we had them all saluting. And he just about lost it -- he had tears in his eyes."

When he left, Avil said, Marchanti told them not to worry -- he was going to a desk job. He worked as a construction planning officer in Baltimore, overseeing renovations of National Guard facilities, said Lt. Col. Charles Kohler, a National Guard spokesman.

Marchanti was deployed to Afghanistan in September with a unit attached to the Army's 29th Infantry Division, serving as a "mentor and adviser" to Afghan national police officers, Kohler said.

Both men were fathers -- the 48-year-old Marchanti had four children and a grandchild, while Loftis had two daughters, the Air Force said.

Loftis, meanwhile, was part of an Air Force special operations unit and had already served one tour in Afghanistan. He was killed just days after his 44th birthday, his mother, Chris Janne, told CNN affilliate WPSD in Paducah, Kentucky.

"He lived more in 44 years than most of us will live in 80," Janne said.

Loftis began his Air Force career as a missile officer. But he changed specialties in 2007, receiving training in Pashto -- one of Afghanistan's two major languages -- and went to Afghanistan as a public affairs officer with a NATO provincial reconstruction team, the service said.

In 2009, then-Maj. Loftis was featured in a story by the Air Force News Service, which noted that he had been given the Pashto name "Esan" -- meaning "The Quality of Being Generous." He had been based at Hurlburt Field, near Fort Walton, Florida, before his last deployment.

"He was very much committed to what he was doing in Afghanistan," his mother said. "He felt that the way to help the people there was to become their friends, and he trusted them."

Loftis and Marchanti were killed in a spasm of violence that followed the burning of copies of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, in what U.S. President Barack Obama has called an accident. The Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said investigators believe their deaths were "100% linked to the Quran burning" because their killer had spent two months in a Pakistani religious school.

The slayings resulted in orders from the NATO command in Afghanistan to pull allied advisers from government agencies in Kabul, raising questions about U.S. plans to rely on small teams of advisers as it draws down its force after a decade at war.

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