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Members of the Louisiana National Guard Youth Challenge Program parade around Port Hudson National Cemetery to honor veterans during a Veterans Day program in November 2016.

Advocate file photo by Claire Salinas

The parents of an overweight 16-year-old boy are blaming the Louisiana National Guard Youth Challenge Program, which includes military-style physical training, for the death of their son last summer.

An autopsy revealed James Shepard, who was in the first week of the program, died July 16 of hyperthermia due to environmental exposure, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Baton Rouge state court.

Hyperthermia, or overheating of the body, also is commonly referred to as heat stroke.

The suit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages and describes Shepard as "obese," alleges that Shepard suffered an agonizing death.

"Any loss of life is unfortunate," Louisiana National Guard spokesman Ed Bush said Friday.

Bush said he was unable to comment further on the pending litigation.

Baton Rouge lawyers Todd Comeaux and Bobby Lormand Jr., who represent Gary Shepard and Shannon Kidd, contend in the suit that James Shepard "experienced life-threatening hyperthermia because he was placed in an outdoor temperature which was excessive for him, and he was ordered to perform rigorous physical activities which surpassed the exertion level his body could tolerate in July summer heat."

Shepard passed out near the repel tower at Youth Challenge Program-Camp Beauregard in central Louisiana on July 15, when the outdoor temperature was in the low- to mid-90s and the heat index was in the upper-90s, according to the suit.

When he came to, Shepard complained of chest pain, nausea, shortness of breath, and numbness in all fingers and toes, the suit says. He also was experiencing a rapid heart rate.

Shepard, who was seen by a nurse at the facility, was ultimately ordered to continue his rigorous training exercises the next day and experienced essentially the same symptoms, the suit states. The temperature and heat index on July 16 were similar to the day before.

He was found unresponsive and transported by ambulance to Rapides Regional Medical Center, where he died later that evening, the suit recounts.

The nurse who saw Shepard on July 15 consulted with a doctor who provides medical services to YCP candidates, but the doctor did not evaluate Shepard or send him to an emergency room, the suit alleges.

Comeaux and Lormand, who could not be reached Friday for additional comment, allege that Shepard did not receive an adequate evaluation and treatment when he began to show symptoms of hyperthermia.

"Additionally, he was not allowed the necessary decrease in his rigorous physical requirements, nor the necessary reduction in his exposure to the July summer heat," they argue.

Bush has said previously that only one other cadet had died in the history of the program. That death was due to a cadet having a pre-existing heart condition that had not been disclosed, he said.

The case involving Shepard has been assigned to state District Judge Wilson Fields.

The Youth Challenge Program is an alternative educational program that lasts 17 months and promotes teamwork, personal growth and development. The program has graduated more than 20,000 cadets since its inception in 1993.

In addition to Camp Beauregard in Pineville, there are Youth Challenge Program sites at The Gillis W. Long Center in Carville near St. Gabriel and Camp Minden near Shreveport.

Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr.