The temperature was in the 90s and still rising as the 17 military officer candidates marched along the path in Queeny Park this week.
Each had a 60-pound rucksack and hydration pouch strapped to his or her back. Each team of three hoisted a 40-pound, 6-by-6-inch timber on its shoulders.
They had been hiking like this, stopping for drills, for 2½ hours. They grunted and dripped with sweat. None complained. If any were cranky, they didn't show it.
Their leader, Keath Hausher, created the St. Louis Military Officer Support Foundation six years ago. Its mission is to take area men and women entering U.S. military academies, ROTC programs and Officer Candidate School and make them tougher, stronger specimens.
It's a unique program that has grown from a handful of trainees to 23 this summer.
"Fire mission!" someone yelled. Everyone stopped.
"Wait!" Hausher said, running to mock a trainee as he emptied his stomach on the side of the trail. "I want to see if you chewed it."
Grueling rucking expeditions are one way Hausher fulfills his mission. He tries to emulate the experiences the teens will encounter at the academies — only his exercises are harder. At West Point, they'll start with rucksacks that weigh 30 pounds and build from there.
Hausher likes to quote a popular cadet motto: "High school football hero, West Point zero."
"You have to reprove and redefine yourself, because everyone is such an exemplary student there," he said. "This gives them a distinct advantage, a way to stand out."
Last week, he bound the trainees' hands and feet with Velcro and had them jump into the deep end of a pool. They had to launch off the pool floor, gasp for air at the surface, then exhale as hard as they could to expel oxygen, sink to the bottom and repeat several times. It's called drown-proofing, and it teaches them to remain cool under pressure.
Hausher emphasizes keeping a steady train of thought, says Army Capt. Charlie Felker, a 2006 West Point graduate and Hausher's first trainee. Don't get too excited or too low.
Felker has done four tours of duty in Afghanistan, most recently as a Ranger Company executive officer. He has received three Bronze Stars and was nominated for a MacArthur Leadership Award.
Every time he deployed, Felker said, he spoke several times by phone with Hausher and emailed him weekly.
"When you're in a firefight or ambush, you always try to maintain a calm presence. You take a deep breath and think clearly," Felker said. "And the more physically fit you are, the better you're able to do that."
ON THEIR GUARD
Hausher began the hike in Queeny Park at 9 a.m. with a warning:
"This is going to be an unpleasant day," he told the 15 young men and two young women lined up before him.
"Some of you will have headaches, you'll get dizzy and nauseated. Let your team leader know, they'll tell the squad leader, and he'll tell me. That's the chain of command."
Winston Boldt, 18, a graduate of John Burroughs School, was serving as squad leader.
He is headed to West Point this fall, and Hausher calls him a standout among standouts.
Every 10 steps, a trainee called out, "One, two, three, over" and the team hoisted its timber up, overhead and onto opposite shoulders to work both sides of their bodies.
At about 9:05 a.m., Josiah Gulick, the point man carrying a toy rifle, yelled, "Contact! Two o'clock."
Trainees dropped their timbers and dived off the shady path, lying flat in the tall weeds.
A gray-haired man walked by with his dog, looking confused. This happened a dozen times as walkers, joggers, trucks and tractors passed by.
"Clear," Hausher shouted as the man and dog passed. The trainees got up, collected their timbers and marched on.
Gulick was home-schooled and is headed to West Point. Hausher said many parents who home-school their children might give them straight A's. Not Gulick's. He got B's.
"These guys are like dry sponges," Hausher said. "They hang on your every word. You're never going to find them texting or picking at their fingernails. They're all deadly serious about this."
Hausher, 42, a personal trainer, comes from a family of military men. He said his biggest disappointment was rejection by a military academy because of a heart condition.
So six years ago, when Felker began training with Hausher's Shark Fitness Training boot camps during breaks from West Point, Hausher knew he had found his calling.
In addition to the hiking and pool exercises, Hausher offers tactical training and hopes to begin working with the St. Louis ROTC Gateway Battalion to provide lessons in map-reading.
As an expert marksman, Hausher trains the teens to clean, assemble and shoot weapons. When his trainees graduate and deploy, he sends them care packages.
'YOU'RE ALL DEAD'
About 9:45 the group arrived at a clearing with several horse jumps. Hausher instructed them to carry the timbers over the jumps.
They had just begun when he yelled: "You guys are dead if I have a machine gun. Are you trying to mate? Come on, spread out!"
There was little joking or chitchat; mostly a lot of strategizing about how to get themselves and the timber over the jumps.
"And by the way, you're all dead," Hausher said a bit later, pointing to a pickup truck behind them. Their rear guard failed to notice.
Hausher ordered them to do 10 pushups. With their packs on.
They finished, scrambled up, and Hausher yelled again: "Every minute you screw around, the hotter it gets. Move it!
Another 45 minutes passed as the trainees drilled.
Hausher turned to Boldt. "There's sugary crap in my bag. If anyone gets in trouble, give them that."
Boldt nodded. He was the most intense, carefully watching the others and directing them.
Michael Gans, 18, joked as they navigated a jump that he was glad he had scheduled a physical with his family doctor for that afternoon. His team leader suggested he go directly there without showering.
Gans, 18, will enter ROTC at Ohio State University this fall.
"He has a lot of personality," Hausher said. "He's a solid guy. A hard worker."
Hausher's services are free to these trainees, funded by the foundation that became a nonprofit three years ago. Before that, Hausher said, he was paying about $20,000 a year out of his own pocket, mostly for ammunition and care packages.
He would like to open the training to enlistees as well, but that's not financially feasible. The program has grown, and so have the costs — to about $50,000 a year, he said.
The foundation raises money with fitness events, concerts and by allowing civilians to pay to play paintball against military officers.
At 11:23 a.m. the trainees were so exhausted that several were having a hard time walking straight. The timbers were stained brown in patches from sweat. Team leaders reassigned them every few dozen yards so everyone got frequent breaks from carrying the additional load.
"Do you have a heavier timber than they do?" Hausher yelled at one team as it stopped to make a switch and the timber fell on the ground.
"Are they in better shape than you?"
"Is it a lack of motivation on your part?"
"Then what's the problem? Get your (stuff) together."
Adam Casey, 25, called himself the grandpa of the group. He's a research assistant at Washington University and has applied to Officer Candidate School.
"I played football at Mizzou, and this is harder than anything I ever did with that," he said.
The group marched for several more yards when the "Fire mission" call rang out.
At 11:46, they reached another clearing, where Hausher instructed them to dump the timbers and rucksacks and run faux shooting drills, complete with sound effects. They ran, dropped in formation and called out "pow-pow-pow."
At 11:58, another trainee got sick.
Later, Hausher asked what they liked about vomiting.
"It works the abs, sir!"
Felker said that out of 1,400 freshmen at West Point last year, the three who ranked highest in the Army Physical Fitness Test were trained by Hausher. One was a woman.
Shortly after noon, the cadets rounded a bend and saw the parking lot, their finish line.
Boldt and Larry Toomey, 19, a Parkway West graduate who was recruited to play basketball at West Point's prep school, were carrying a timber at the rear of the pack.
"Come on, let's bring it in. Let's go, let's go, let's go," said Toomey. They began to trot.
A few minutes later, they guzzled water in the shade. But they weren't done. They still had to run four miles.