In the Army, chaplains are supposed to supply the right words, the words of sympathy, the words of comfort, to the survivors.
But sometimes there are no right words for a wife who has lost her husband, parents who have lost their son or a child who has lost his father, said Col. Bernerd F. Nass, the base chaplain here.
"The biggest need is a shoulder to cry on, a ministry of presence as we call it," he said. "You just put your arms around them and do the best you can."
All of Fort Campbell, home of "the Screaming Eagles" of the 101st Division, tried to offer a collective shoulder today to the families of the 248 soldiers who died Thursday in a plane crash on their way home from a peace-keeping mission in the Sinai.
The division sent an honor guard of 145 men and women to Dover Air Force Base, Del., where the bodies are to be flown from the crash site in Gander, Newfoundland. A sign beside the base runway said, "Have a Safe Flight . . . . Hurry Back."
President Reagan announced that he would visit Monday for an official memorial service. One memorial service was held tonight in nearby Hopkinsville; another is scheduled Sunday in nearby Clarksville, Tenn.
The base's 35 chaplains lit 248 candles in Chapel 11, then fanned out, along with Army wives, to bring prayers and hot dishes to the survivors. Army spokesmen said the families of 71 dead live in the immediate area.
"There is naturally a lot of grief, and I suppose some anger, which is understandable," said Major Gen. Burton Patrick, base commander.
Among the dead was a chaplain, Major Troy Carter, a father of three teen-agers. He had telephoned his wife from Newfoundland at 4 a.m. Thursday, two hours before the crash, to let her know he was on his way home.
She was still in a state of shock today. "My husband was doing the job he loved, and now he is with his God," she murmured, choking back tears. "I'm proud of him."
Carter and the other victims were part of a 970-soldier task force that spent nearly six months with the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai. Two other planeloads came home earlier, and another is due next week.
The soldiers lived and worked in close quarters, manning checkpoints and outlook posts in the Sinai, said Sgt. Patrick O'Brien. "It became a brotherhood. They were like brothers . . . . You developed a comradery. You shared the fact that you were far away from home and they were far away from home as well."
Some of the wives who stayed behind were even closer. "We all watched out for one another while the men were gone," Beth Barnett said as she left the ranch house home of young, newly widowed wife. "They were all good men, and we were so excited about them coming home for the holidays."
Her own husband was supposed to be on the Thursday flight but had come home Dec. 4 when the couple learned that they could adopt a baby. "Otherwise, he would be dead, too," said a shaken Barnett as she climbed into a red sports car.
Army life is a transitory one. "People are here a month, six months, a year, or two years, and then they're gone and someone else takes their place," said the Rev. Louie Montoya, associate pastor at First Assembly of God Church in Clarksville. "But we love them just like they had been here 20 years."
He said at least two members of the church were among the dead. But even those who did not know any of the victims struggled for ways to express their sympathy. Dozens of signs sprang up on amid the rows of pawn shops, liquor stores, fast food joints and taverns that line U.S. 41 outside the base.
"We salute the brave men and families of the 101st," said one. Others said, "101st peacemakers live in our hearts," "Our thoughts and prayers are with you" and "Our hearts are with you 101st families."
The Rev. Carmen King of the First United Methodist Church in Hopkinsville said he decided to hold a short memorial service tonight even though no one in his church was involved in the tragedy. "I feel the armed forces need my support because they do so many things that make my life richer," he said. "These people come here from other states, and they need a church home."
Among the victims whose families waited elsewhere, The Associated Press reported, was Spec. 4 Frank C. Wheeler of Odell, Tex., whose adoptive parents lost their other two sons and a grandson this year in separate accidents. They had last seen Frank at his brother's funeral in June.
In Lake City, Fla., Brenda Harrington learned that her husband, Pfc. Eric Harrington, was not on the plane although his name had been on the passenger list. He had lost his passport in Cairo and was bumped from the flight.
In Kansas City, Mo., Donna Brady said she got a collect call from her son, Sgt. Mark Brady. "He said they were getting ready to board the plane and they didn't have room for two people. So he and another fellow stayed behind."
In Schofield, Wis., Judith Schultz tried to phone the Pentagon special information desk to ask about her son, Pfc. Keith M. Schultz. "I had just gotten rings when I saw the silhouette of a serviceman walking up to the door. Then I knew it was all over," she said