Keaone Stephens is sweating. The 150-pound log he’s carrying digs into his shoulder despite sharing the load with three other young men. They’re walking along Santa Rosa Avenue in a procession with other groups carrying two massive truck tires and a half dozen ammunition cans weighted with sand.

This isn’t the latest workout. These young men and women have another goal in mind for their fitness: joining the U.S. Marine Corps.

Every journey begins with a first step. For a Marine, that journey can begin months before stepping upon the famed yellow footprints at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, informally known as boot camp.

“I thought the Delayed Entry Program was just going to be a workout on Mondays and Wednesdays,” Stephens said of the Marine Corps’ enlistment program for prospective recruits, “but it turned out to be much more than that. It has truly become a second family and a place I look forward to going to.”

Stephens, his friend and fellow Montgomery High graduate Tyler Cato and Elsie Allen graduate Jose Jimenez, all 18, formed the core group of poolees, the Marines’ name for enlistees, during their monthslong involvement in the program, which allows up to a year to participate in physical training, team-building functions and recruiting events before boot camp.

Because the three displayed the highest level of motivation and leadership among poolees, Stephens was given the “rank” of poolee guide by recruiters, and Cato and Jimenez were named poolee squad leaders under him. All three chose military occupational specialties in combat arms, the Marine Corps’ spearhead. Cato and Stephens will be in infantry, and Jimenez in artillery.

Stephens, Cato and Jimenez gathered at the recruiting station on Santa Rosa Avenue a final time Aug. 19, the same day they shipped out to boot camp, for their bittersweet farewells with families and friends.

They will take their first steps as Marine recruits together. They opted to ship out under the Marine Corps’ buddy program, which guarantees they stay together in the same platoon at boot camp.

It’s the beginning of the path that could take them thousands of miles from home and possibly into combat.

Upon completion of training, they will truly be able to call themselves brothers, having earned the title of U.S. Marines.