They say you can't teach a 64-year-old dog new tricks. But I can point to a lot of firsts that came with being the "embedded journalist" in this veterans-oriented Fittest Loser Challenge.

My first cooking class. Thanks to a free "makeover" we got at the end, my first pink shirt. My first manicure. The first time I got my hair cut in a "spa and salon."

The first time in my life I even tried to lose weight or analyzed what I eat.

But the No. 1 memory will be exercising with, weighing in with and constantly re-interviewing four great people. A sense of shared hardship bonded us into kind of a military unit of our own.

Despite competing against each other for prizes and glory, these four selflessly cheered me and each other on. Maybe that comes from their military training, which teaches that you're all one unit who literally die together if you don't watch each other's backs.

It's too bad I can't pass on the great "war stories" we shared. Especially the one about a dud recruit named Murphy.

Penny Brown was the quiet introvert, the school lunch lady getting healthy for her kids. We all felt awful that she wasn't able to lose as much weight as the three guys. But maybe losing twice as much as I did made her feel a little better.

J.D. DeBouver was the hard-luck guy. Besides losing two of his three children, he has a history of illnesses, including depression and PTSD. On top of all that, he got injured during the contest. J.D. never would open up in detail about his Iraq War experiences. When I described him as our only "combat veteran," he disputed that label. But if you're in a convoy that gets bombed or shot at, you're a combat veteran in my book.

Russ Page, the former Air Force career man and one-time adviser to the Saudi Arabian military, was our group's joking intellectual. Apparently a shoo-in to win, he lost at the last moment by one pound. But he genuinely doesn't mind, since he has found a new healthy lifestyle with his wife, Diane. They spent the final weekend at their son's wedding.

Most memorable of all was Tony Wiszowaty, an outgoing, passionate live wire of a Marine and a Christian. He's the kind of old-time, Chicago-neighborhood guy who always has an amusing or inspiring story to tell. He will send an affirming email or phone call at any victory or disappointment. Yet being called "retarded" as a kid left him with a deep-seated passion to keep proving himself. I'm overjoyed that he won because he's the one who would have been hurt the most by losing.

Will I keep these 17 pounds off? Probably. I've kept losing a pound a week since the contest ended. I will drink water instead of the Mountain Dew and Cherry Coke I used to suck all day. I'll go easier on the sugar, starches and milk. When I do eat them, I'll try to eat proteins and fats at the same time.

Once my bum knee gets better, I'll probably start swimming and using the weight machines at The Centre of Elgin, and go back to 10-mile rides along the Western suburbs' fantastic bike paths.

It's just too bad I won't be doing that as part of this new band of losers who were really winners.

• Dave Gathman is a Daily Herald correspondent who underwent the same physical workouts and nutritional counseling as the Fittest Loser contestants as he wrote about their journey.