There was grief, of course. There was shock and fear. Mostly, though, there was acceptance: a curt shrug, a grim nod. It happens.
This military town lost three of its own in Afghanistan this week when an American bomb exploded too close to Special Forces troops near Kandahar.
Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald "J.D." Davis, known for his quiet professionalism, died. So did Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Henry Petithory, a cutup who kept his comrades in stitches. Also killed was Staff Sgt. Brian Cody Prosser, known in several battalions as the go-to guy for timely intelligence. All were members of the 5th Special Forces Group stationed at Ft. Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border.
Their deputy commander, Lt. Col. Frank Hudson, called a news conference Thursday to vow that the fallen would not be forgotten. "This is the oppression we bear to free the oppressed," he said. "We will remain undaunted."
With less eloquence, but with equal grit, soldiers on and off this sprawling post of 20,000 armed forces echoed those sentiments Thursday. This is war, they said. In war, soldiers die. There is not much time to pause for mourning. And there is even less time for fear.
"As much as you don't want to think about [combat casualties], everyone knows it's a possibility," 1st Lt. Erin Moretz said.
Army pilot John Mancini looked up from his newspaper, from a story about the slain Green Berets. "It's sad," he said, "but it's one of the realities of war."
There was not much else to say, not much else a soldier could say.
Even the way the soldiers died--killed by "friendly fire"--did not seem to jolt loose fury. Chief Warrant Officer Rob Way, who knew all three of the victims, said their family members were having a tough time grappling with the circumstances. "The spouses I've spoken to keep asking why, how, how could this happen," he said. But on the base at large, soldiers repeated with tight, tired voices that accidents happen. Again and again, they spelled out the formula they have all learned to accept without rage: This is war. In war, soldiers die.
"When you go into war, you got to watch out for them and you got to watch out for us. That's the way it is," said a Vietnam veteran named E.J. who sat smoking at the American Legion hall bar.
Added 1st Lt. David Brown, an Army platoon leader: "I don't think this has changed anything here a whole lot."
Not, perhaps, for the soldiers. Their wives, though, had a hard time with the stoic front.
At the post's relocation center, Lilly Lawhon knew the lines every military wife knows, and said them well. Casualties, even deaths from friendly fire, are inevitable, she noted: "You don't have to accept it, you don't have to like it, but you have to deal with it." Yet she could not keep from letting slip her own fears. Her husband has retired. But her two sons-in-law are on active duty. Deaths like those in Afghanistan this week gave her jitters she knew she would not easily shake.
"It's like a shadow, like reality has really set in," Lawhon said. "It's just terrible. It's really frightening."
In this atmosphere of uncertainty, retired Army Sgt. Nick Bouten decided he would do his part to promote good cheer. The weather was awful. Rain was pelting. There was a nasty wind. But Bouten set his mind on stringing holiday lights atop the American Legion hall.
So out he climbed, in the rain and the wind, and strung 6,000 lights along the roof. His buddies thought he was nuts. "You crazy?" they shouted up at him.
No, Bouten shouted back. Just determined to keep life running as it should, because that's what a military man does, no matter what.
"If our Special Forces can be over there being shot up, then I can be up here stringing lights," he thundered. "Got to keep the Christmas spirit up somehow, no matter what else is going on."