WEST POINT, N.Y. (Army News Service, May 25, 2007) - Although All-Air Force squads won both team titles, the Soldier-athletes who participated in the 2007 Armed Forces Volleyball Championships May 8-12 were proud of their month spent in the Catskills focusing on a game they love.

"I've seen teams that take three months to actually get it together in college," said Spc. Sarah "Big Red" Lusk, a military policewoman stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. "For a team to get together like this in three weeks and play so amazingly and run the offense so effectively, we're playing way faster than I ever thought we would."

Spc. Lusk, a 6-foot-2-inch middle hitter, was a four-year volleyball starter for Colorado State University-Pueblo. The only All-Army women's player selected for the Armed Forces All-Tournament Team, Spc. Lusk spent most of last year deployed in Iraq with the same unit as Spc. Kevin Frantz, who earned all-tourney honors on the men's side. They played together in a Fourth of July tournament at Camp Taji, but that was the extent of their volleyball action in the Middle East.

Spc. Michael Bertorello, the libero for the All-Army men's squad, said Morale, Welfare and Recreation activities were more prevalent in Balad, Iraq, than they were near Spc. Lusk and Spc. Frantz's unit.

"The MWR people in Balad made sure we had more than enough sports - basketball, volleyball, weightlifting championships, you name it," said Spc. Bertorello, 31, of Fort Rucker, Ala. "They even had horseshoe tournaments."

The primary goal of Army MWR is to give Soldiers and their Families the same quality-of-life opportunities afforded to those they defend. Spc. Bertorello believes MWR activities also teach Soldiers valuable lessons.

"The Army always talks about teamwork and communication," he explained. "This really is all of the Army values they want in wartime personified. It's one team, one fight. It's not six guys out there, and it's not three guys on the bench looking at you, it's everybody communicating and moving as one.

"That's why we were able to rally and win three games today," Spc. Bertorello said of the All-Army men's 25-11, 25-9, 25-10 victory over All-Marine Corps. "It was all about us and what we were doing - not reacting to the enemy. We were taking it to them. We made the rallies and controlled our side of the net. It should be pass-set-kill every time."

The concept of "taking it to them" is nothing new to Spc. Bertorello. He was tending bar at Dayton International Airport on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorist hijackers crashed jumbo jets into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and a field in rural Somerset County, Pa.

"I got a lot of anger from that day," recalled Spc. Bertorello, who quickly traded his tumblers for boots and enlisted in the Army. "I saw the hurt on the people that were directly affected by it because they knew people that were flying. And I took it as part of me because somebody came into my backyard and started messing with us."

Nearly six years later, Spc. Bertorello's perspective hasn't changed, whether he's on the front line or the serving line.

"A lot of pride, if you had to sum it up in one word," he said of representing the Army in the Armed Forces Championships. "Anytime you can put the name of an organization on your back and play volleyball, your chest swells out a little bit, you stand a little bit taller, and you know that a lot more is expected out of you.

"We're representing everybody that's deployed, everybody's that's fallen, and everybody that's still fighting. We're them right now."

Spc. Bertorello dumped what he called "a dead-end job" to help fight the War on Terrorism. Spc. Bryan Pieschel, the All-Army men's other Armed Forces All-Tournament selection, resigned as head volleyball coach at Quincy University in Illinois to enlist.

"My family and friends were shocked to say the least," said Spc. Pieschel, 29, an All-Army setter/assistant coach from Fort Leonard Wood. "I joined to go to Iraq, and I told my family that from the get-go. I'd always thought it was something every American should do."

Spc. Pieschel said 9-11 might not have affected him so intensely had he not visited the World Trade Center in New York prior to the attack. Afterward, he returned to Ground Zero and taped a personal documentary of the destruction. Suddenly, a life dedicated to volleyball "felt like I was not making a difference," Spc. Pieschel recalled.

As fortunate as he felt to represent the Army in the Armed Forces Championships, Spc. Pieschel said nothing he's accomplished in volleyball can compare with serving in Iraq.

"It was the hardest year of my life, but I don't regret it," he said. "It was the most important thing I have ever done in my life - just being there as a medic for my fellow Soldiers and their families."

For seven other Soldiers, the All-Army volleyball training camp and Armed Forces tournament doubled as a month-long homecoming at their alma mater.

"In the midst of playing volleyball, I'm having so much fun that I don't want it to stop," said 1st Lt. Jennifer Wynn of Fort Campbell, Ky., who played four seasons of volleyball here for the Black Knights and spent most of 2006 deployed in Ramadi, Iraq. "We're just having way too much fun."

First Lt. Jennifer Combs of Camp Humphreys, Korea, and 2nd Lt. Abby Casciato of Fort Leonard Wood also played volleyball for the Black Knights, as did Fort Campbell's 2nd Lt. Jennifer Rayburn, who concentrated more on track and the triathlon while a cadet.

"It's an honor not only playing All-Army volleyball, but coming back to the academy has been a totally different experience this time around," said 2nd Lt. Rayburn, who is scheduled to deploy to Baghdad next year. "I'm looking forward to deploying because it's almost like a rite of passage now in the Army. You want to go serve along with everyone who's already over there. You don't want to be the one who's left behind."

On the men's side, 1st Lt. Noah Smith of Fort Bliss, Texas; 1st Lt. Justin McFarlin of Fort Bragg, N.C.; and Capt. Matthew Fix of Fort Campbell also played for the U.S. Military Academy.

"This is the first time I've played volleyball since I graduated in 2005," 1st Lt. McFarlin said. "The biggest thing was just getting my legs back because out in the big Army it's all run, run, run - so I've lost a lot of my vertical [leap] that I've been trying to get back since I've been here."

Although the players' timing and jumping ability may have left something to be desired, there was no lack of pride on the court.

"It was intense because we were in two-a-days almost every day for three weeks," 1st Lt. Smith said. "It takes a lot out of you. You spend most of your time playing volleyball. Then you eat, rest, and play some more volleyball.

"I can't say it's a bad thing," he concluded. "It's been a lot of fun and I consider myself lucky to do this."

(Tim Hipps writes for the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command.)