Even though they're in the shade, the four high school boys are sweating as they work out on a hill at Chester Frost Park. Two minutes of pushups, two minutes of sit ups, tire lifts.
Their circuit training is focused on one goal: making the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps Raiders team at Soddy-Daisy High School. The season is about to start and people are going to be cut.
The four -- sophomores Ricky Haynes and Blake Price, junior Bradley Weaver and senior Destin Cash -- have known each other practically their whole lives, but JROTC is what really brought them together. Now they're more like brothers than friends.
The July day is hot and sunny, and the park is casually busy: kids run through the playground, a group plays a game of volleyball, families spread towels on the beach.
The boys are taking a water break when suddenly they hear shouts: a woman is screaming for help down at the lake.
At first, nobody moves. For about a minute they stand frozen, thinking that the woman is joking around. But she isn't.
"My heart just sank to my feet," Blake said.
Someone was drowning.
All at once, all four teenagers start running down the hill to the edge of the lake. Blake dives in and Ricky leaps in with Bradley and Destin close behind. Ricky, the best swimmer in the group, takes the lead as they head about 30 yards off-shore, following the shouts and pointing of frantic family members.
Out there, none of the boys can touch the bottom of the lake. They start to dive, trying to find the drowning man. They dive, and dive and dive. No one finds him -- the lake bottom is full of thick seaweed.
"I'd never had that feeling before," Ricky said. "I felt responsible for him. I was in a state of panic, I guess."
Bradley takes a deep breath and dives again.
"I opened my eyes and he was right there," he said. "I started to lift and kick him up, but he pushed me down because he was unconscious."
Bradley struggles with the man, who is tall and slightly overweight. He's only wearing a pair of shorts. Finally, Bradley breaks the surface and screams for his buddies to help him out.
"Call 911," Destin shouts across the water to a small crowd of bystanders on the shore. He takes charge, keeps the other boys calm and together they lug the man to shore. His lips are blue, his face is purple and he's not breathing.
Destin is certified in CPR and is about to start when the ambulance arrives -- and keeps ongoing. The EMTs don't see the boys. Ricky jumps up and sprints after the ambulance, waving his arms and shouting like a madman. He follows them for nearly a half-mile.
"We could barely see him when he finally got them turned around," Blake said.
While Ricky chases the ambulance, a registered nurse happens on the scene and tells the boys not to do CPR -- with water in his system it could make him worse -- so they turn him on his side.
Then the EMTs arrive and take over. The man starts to breathe again.
They saved him.
Lt. Col. Robert Ward took charge of Soddy-Daisy High School's JROTC 11 years ago, after 26 years in the military. He thought he'd try it for a year or two, but he's still at it, routinely working 12 hour days to motivate, teach and mentor the program's 220 cadets.
"We teach leadership skills through doing things," he said. "Not just textbooks and tests -- we do that, too -- but most of it is hands on."
He's tough as nails on the kids and visibly commands their respect. He believes the JROTC program gives kids the self-confidence to succeed both in the classroom and out. Ten minutes after Ricky, Blake, Destin and Bradley pulled the man from the lake, he gets a phone call.
"You'll never guess what happened. We just pulled a guy out of the lake."
"Ricky, Blake, Destin and Bradley."
"Well, was he drowning?"
"Yes sir, he was on the bottom of the lake, and we pulled him up."
"Well, did you do CPR?"
"Yes sir, we started CPR on him."
And on and on. They wanted him to know every detail, because his guidance -- and the guidance of the other JROTC instructors -- laid the critical foundation for their actions.
"I definitely think without JROTC, there is no way we would have reacted so calmly," Bradley said. "We learned how to listen and understand, without one of us trying to take control and everyone else jumping in and arguing. JROTC taught us the leadership to be able to step up."
"In RO, we stay close together, and it's like a family," Ricky added. "When you are really close, you can cooperate and get the job done faster."
After the incident, Ward got to thinking. JROTC gives out a Medal of Heroism, the highest honor the Army awards to ROTC and JROTC cadets. It's been five years since any state in his brigade -- a five state region -- has earned the award.
He nominates the boys.
A couple hundred cadets are lined up under the bright lights of Soddy-Daisy's football field. Each student wears a dark green uniform and stands smartly in formation.
Another 200 people huddle under blankets and scarves on the cement stair-step bleachers Monday night to watch the early Veterans Day ceremony. The hum of quiet conversation is punctuated by an occasional laugh or the shout of a child.
Down on the field, 10 black chairs sit on a raised platform for the evening's honored guests. The bugle sounds and the ceremony starts. The students salute, turn, shout. Instructors wander through the group in blue uniforms with bright red clipboards. Some cadets carry swords, others wave flags.
After three cadets sing the national anthem, the presentation of awards begins. Someone at the front of the group shouts an order.
"Persons to be honored, front and center!"
Bradley, Ricky, Blake and Destin sprint from their groups to the center of the field, dress shoes and all. They stand in a line, shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the crowd.
Rear Adm. Noah Long approaches each boy with the Medal of Heroism and passes them out slowly and methodically as the student announcer, Cadet Sapp, fills the crowd in.
"On July 25 these cadets took immediate action to save a man's life," she says.
Each boy stands ramrod straight. No smiles, eyes straight ahead.
When Long finishes, the crowd gives the boys a standing ovation.
Then the announcer invites the crowd down to the field to take pictures. A small semi-circle of camera-wielding parents, siblings and friends surround the boys.
They pose for photos with wide smiles and start cracking jokes. The mood switches from solemn to celebratory in an instant.
"That was a very heroic thing that they did," Long said on the sideline. "They reacted to their training and without hesitation clearly saved the life of this man."
Bradley said the experience was life changing and made him appreciate his family.
"This is definitely one of those things that you only see on TV with like David Hasselholff running down the beach to save someone or something," he said. "It's not something you expect a bunch of teenagers to have to react to. It's definitely one of the biggest life-changing experiences of my life."
"Yeah," Blake added, "I was just hoping I wouldn't fall and look like an idiot trying to save someone."
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476.
Shelly Bradbury joined the Times Free Press as a business reporter in January 2013, after starting with the paper as a general assignment intern in July 2012. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint Hill Times. Outside the newsroom, Shelly enjoys ...