In the sprawling white mess tent the industrial fridges have been removed and the single-serving milk is now jumbled in plastic crates. Last bowls of Bran Flakes and Granola are being enjoyed before the battalion is placed on hard rations: aluminum bagged Lasagna or scrambled egg with salsa being some of the better options.
The prairie air is warming just as wholesale brigade pack-up picks up momentum. Within the battalion Combat support Coy. will be the first to go; snipers and recce spirited away in a night move while Adm. Coy., who have the task of returning the land to its pre-exercise state, will roll out last.
Halfway up the mess tent, a few benches have been formed into a hollow square facing the east. On this Sunday afternoon the padre is leading his weekly service to a small cluster of troops, photocopied scriptures in hand. Smiling and nodding along to the padre’s overtures, it’s easy to see his avuncular charm working its magic on these young believers.
Outside the tent the sun is tracing its way down the western horizon though there’s still ample light to shine through the plastic windows and cast ambient illumination on the white tarp walls. Positioned between a west and east window, the sun also alights the congregation and, notably, the padre’s western-facing golden mustache. Bushy but well-kempt it’s the personification of his personality. His is an approachable charm coupled with a subtle sense of detached contemplation (and a pocket full of mints) that imbues him with the air of the ideal badlands preacher.
* * *Long snowy fingers still hold to the low ground across the impossibly large training area. Slowly and grudgingly they’re ceding to the grasslands underneath and bringing out a legion of prairie dogs. In this crawl towards spring the long blades are still dormant but already offer an ochre glow. These expanses, these possibilities and unpredictabilities of The Badlands quickly suggest the Terence Mallick film of the same name – the beauty and indifference of the land is clearly at play here, a play on – and of – its own terms. Those terms are most clearly defined by Kathleen Norris in her Badlands contemplative memoir, Dakota when she writes, "The Beauty of the plains is like that of an icon; it does not give an inch to sentiment or romance."
It might then seem a missed opportunity to hold the service inside, but that is to assume worship takes place here, when clearly, worship takes place on the land. Worship is the humping across snow fingers, through muddy lowlands and seasonal ponds; It’s walking the fire picket at the rise of the lodestar and rolling out in a convoy at daybreak with the eastern sun promising nothing except honesty. The Sunday service is simply a consolidation of what the land has already whispered as it whipped up last year’s grasses.
* * *Within the mess tent, three weeks of meals and boots have worn the grasses down to barren swathes and swatches of dirt, with slivers of grass surviving only along the tent edges. Dirt and mud defined this Ex and the soldier’s boots confirm their experiences. Hardened pale mocha chunks of clotted earth hang like scabs off their wet-weather boots and if you were to only casually glance at the boots they might seem to emerge directly out of the dirt. Higher up the legs though, the dirt fades and the pixilated saturations of green and brown take over. It’s an easy, overly earnest metaphor to see these figures in CadPat camouflage as growing from this mud-scape; as technological proxy and precursors of the soon-to-be-reborn grassland.