George Washington was "the action hero of his time," a historian said. A skilled horseman, a vigorous outdoorsman, and a man renowned for his physical strength, he was also, of course, the leader of the first incarnation of the American military. Hundreds of military/sports heroes followed Washington--most notably George Patton, who competed in the 1912 Olympics, finishing fifth in the pentathlon; and Pat Tillman, a star defensive safety who refused a lucrative NFL contract in order to become an Army Ranger--then lost his life this year in Afghanistan.

These men embody the emphasis the four branches of the service place on physical fitness, a prerequisite for successful soldiering. Some warriors enter the military hard and get harder; others transform themselves from softies into lean, lethal machines. We embarked on a search for the fittest of the fit, one from each branch of the Armed Forces. These four men even maintained their conditioning during tours of duty in Iraq. Each of them survived and succeeded in part because of their core principles: discipline, goal-setting, and motivation. They are role models. They are patriots. We salute them.

Peter Hamilton, 23
Rank: Petty Officer Third Class
Service: U.S. Navy
Height/Weight: 5'9"/185 lbs
Hometown: Dallas, Texas

In the early morning hours of March 20, 2003--the day Operation Iraqi Freedom began--Peter Hamilton was working as a gunner and chief engineer on the small boats that deploy Navy SEALs into hot zones. "We were there first," says Hamilton. "When we finished, we could hear the bombs dropping in the distance."

Though Hamilton trains and fights like a SEAL, he's actually a "SWCC": a Special Warfare Combatant Crewman. Perhaps because no SWCC has been elected governor of Minnesota or been played by Charlie Sheen, these elite warriors don't get nearly as much attention as their SEAL brethren.

The officer and his mates spent a month in Iraq--securing oil platforms, clearing waterways, and sweeping for mines. It was hard, dangerous work made even more difficult by the body armor, specialty gear, and weapons they had to shoulder. But for that, Hamilton was prepared: The sailor's shoulders are profoundly broad from years of weight training. And that strength helped him in combat, he says, "because I was so used to putting my body to the test."

Hamilton's testing began months earlier at the Navy's mandatory, grueling three-month SWCC-training program, complete with swimming and running. "You're miserable, cold, and tired," he recalls. "But it really helped give me confidence."

Hamilton's regimen continues on his Coronado Island base in San Diego. There he runs, swims, and lifts daily. Called Command PT (physical training), it culminates Fridays with "Monster Mash"--a mile-swim/five-mile-run/mile-swim biathlon that leaves him cold, wet, and ready to kick ass.

Marching Orders: Hamilton's six-day-a-week regimen includes legs twice weekly (he squats 405 lbs), calves three times, arms, chest (he benches 330), and traps once, and abs every other day.

Mess Tent: Daily, Hamilton ingests 50% carbs, 30% to 40% protein, and 10% fat.

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Billy Edwards, 26
Rank: First Lieutenant
Service: U.S. Marine Corps
Height/Weight: 6'2"/175 lbs
Hometown: Virginia Beach, Va.

Platoon Commander Billy Edwards crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq the morning of the invasion. For Edwards--a competitive triathlete and elite marathoner--it was the beginning of a different kind of endurance competition.

After securing the Ramallah oil fields, Edwards' 5th Marine Division swept north, engaging the enemy in a series of firefights over the next three weeks. Not a single Marine in his 30-man platoon was lost. But the fighting, the constant movement, and the 130-degree heat took their toll. "We were digging holes at night to sleep in," he recalls, "then riding on vehicles under the sun during the day, wearing heavy gear. Good thing we were in shape."

Once the major fighting ended, the Marine found time to start his running (he did half-mile loops around the compound) and daily calisthenics. That's also when one of his peers dreamed up the Iraq Ironman competition. Held July 4, it seems like an event only a Jarhead could love: 60 pullups, a mile run, 300 yards of walking lunges, a mile run, 300 pushups--you get the drill. About 14 men braved the starting line, but only a half dozen could even finish, among them Edwards.

His competitive fire stoked, Edwards entered the Tour de Iraq. This honor-system virtual race had competitors running solo, logging their mileage over four weeks, and posting the numbers on the base's bulletin board. Despite Iraq's brutally hot and dusty conditions, Edwards managed to compile 200 miles and won.

Speaking of winning, just eight weeks after Edwards' September homecoming, he finished 20th--out of 15,965 competitors--in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., with a time of 2:39:08. Notes Edwards, "If you want to get better at something, you have to do it."

Marching Orders: Edwards runs 50 miles, bikes 70, and swims at least two 30- to 45-minute sessions weekly. He does supersets of pullups (seven sets, 50 total reps) and pushups (about 200) daily, followed by an abs routine of 50 situps, 75 crunches, 30 side raises, 45 reverse curlups, 25 flutter kicks, and 70 more crunches.

Mess Tent: Edwards' diet is primarily carb-based (but for a weekly high-protein meal). He usually eats a bagel and cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and pasta for dinner.

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Eli Mayers, 26
Rank: Chief Warrant Officer 2
Service: U.S. Army
Height/Weight: 5'11"/192 lbs
Hometown: Taylor, Texas

War is hell--on your body, soul, even your training regimen. For his first three months in Iraq, helicopter pilot Eli Mayers could do little more than pushups and situps to maintain his conditioning. It didn't help that his unit--the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Squadron, 10th Cavalry--moved eight times. "We were in every hot spot you've heard of," he recalls. "We spent time in the Sunni Triangle, Baghdad, Tikrit--you name it." This impermanence not only hampered Mayers' training, it did a real number on his taste buds.

For four months, he, like all his fighting colleagues, downed nothing but MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), the modern-Army field rations.

He arrived in-country in April 2003, just as the war ended and the insurgency began. Piloting a two-man Kiowa Warrior helicopter, Mayers performed reconnaissance and security missions, and assisted in humanitarian efforts. "The kind of stuff that doesn't always make the news," he says.

Finally, he was at least able to find comfort in routine. Last June, billeted in an old abandoned Iraqi military building, he and a couple of buddies transformed the basement into a weight room. A discarded footlocker became their bench, on which they pressed an old manhole cover. Two columns of concrete blocks piled atop each other, attached by a pipe, became their squat machine. "It wasn't Gold's Gym," laughs Mayers, "but for the middle of the Iraqi desert, it wasn't bad."

What drove him to go to all this trouble? "I did it to stay healthy," he answers. "I want to be in good shape when I'm 50."

Marching Orders: Now back home at Fort Hood, Texas, Mayers does an hour of PT every morning, shooting for 200 pushups and 200 situps, capped by a two-mile run. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons he swims an hour. Monday and Friday he does four sets each of dumbbell bench presses (chest), Hammer-machine low rows (back), Hammer-machine shoulder presses (shoulders), rope press-downs (triceps), and barbell curls (biceps). Wednesday he does three sets of squats, leg extensions, standing and lying hamstring curls, and seated and standing calf raises. He trains his abs twice daily. "I know it's overkill," he admits, "but I like it."

Mess Tent: Mayers' breakfast is eggs, oatmeal or cereal, toast with peanut butter, orange juice, and fat-free milk. Lunch and dinner usually consist of chicken or steak with a potato or whole-wheat pasta and green beans. Protein shakes fill in the gaps.

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Ahmadou Fisher, 28
Rank: Staff Sergeant
Service: U.S. Air Force
Height/Weight: 5'11"/205 lbs
Hometown: Bronx, N.Y.

Ahmadou Fisher pumps iron and has nerves of steel--an asset when you're gassing up planes 30,000 feet over Baghdad. That is the job of an in-flight refueler. Fisher--a member of the 305th Air Mobility Wing--extends a 50-foot-long boom from the rear of his KC-10 tanker plane (a modified DC-10) to the jet or bomber he's refueling. Then he pumps in up to 8,000 lbs of Saudi Soda per minute.

"It's like a very expensive video game," says Fisher, whose boom serviced many pilots with fuel gauges hovering on "E."

The KC-10 is also a cargo plane, and when he's not a midair pump jockey, Fisher loads it with palettes of equipment. "It helps to have some strength," he says.

In fact, Staff Sergeant Fisher has more than a little of that: Now back at McGuire Air Force Base near Wrightstown, N.J., this dedicated weight trainer has ratcheted up the intensity of his workouts. The payoff: Entering his first bodybuilding competition in New Jersey last April, the ripped 205-lb Fisher (with just 7% body fat) took first in the novice heavyweight division. He wasn't flying solo on this mission, though. "Having another person to motivate you keeps you moving forward." And he won't slip back. "This is a lifestyle for me. I'll do this whether or not I compete."

Marching Orders: Fisher works out six nights a week. On Day 1 he does legs and shoulders; Day 2, chest and biceps; Day 3, back and tris. Repeat cycle. (He also does abs daily.) For pecs, Fisher does five sets of flat benches (his max is 365 lbs), five sets of incline presses, then three sets of dumbbell bench presses, machine flys, cable flys, and dumbbell pullovers.

Mess Tent: His eating plan consists of six small meals a day (he loves chicken and protein shakes).