Like many Marines, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jeremy Piasecki was eager to go back to Afghanistan — but his motivation for doing so was a little different from that of his battle buddies.
In 2008, Piasecki, a personnel officer attached to U.S. Army Africa, introduced a group of Afghans to water polo. He recently returned there for a month to coach the Afghan National Water Polo Team, guiding a fledgling group of athletes as they dip their toes into sport and international competition.
Water polo is a physically aggressive game. Teams work to throw a ball into their opponent's goal, while preventing their opponent from doing likewise. Piasecki first got the idea to teach locals about it while working near Kabul as a civilian about seven years ago.
While aboard a military base, he recalled seeing a swimming pool devoid of water and filled with trash. He convinced the Afghan base commander to clean it up, and began teaching Afghans how to swim and play the game.
"It was the first ever water polo team in Afghanistan," he said.
That same year, he formed a nonprofit to help pay for gear and other expenses. He was also asked to coach the national team, so he and others began volunteering their time.
Over the years, Piasecki said Afghanistan's national team has improved through regular practice and competition. In December, they played in the Asian Water Polo Clubs Championship in Iran. While they got shut out every game, Piasecki said he's still pleased with how they played.
The team got to see how other teams move the ball and defend their goal. It put a fire in their bellies, he said.
"Their thirst and hunger was that much more now, now they want to get that much better," he said.
The players want to play teams from other cities in Afghanistan, and they're working on setting up more international matches. The goal, Piasecki said, is to give them as much time as possible in the water to develop their skills.
Piasecki, who grew up in Fallbrook, California at the eastern border of Camp Pendleton, first played water polo in middle school.
He's coached full-time for 11 years. He's currently in Afghanistan training the team, but his civilian job and reserve drills are in Italy.
Coaching the team, like being a Marine, is another way to serve, he said. It's a calling that many people in the military have when they're deployed and spend time with the Afghans, and feel compelled to help, he said.
Piasecki is working with a limited budget and a scrappy team of novice players. Driven by a passion for the game, the simple beauty of sport, or the natural diplomacy that friendly competition can bring, Piasecki is determined to get the sport to catch on in Afghanistan.
And he's starting to see signs that his efforts are working, he said.
"Just the other day we were at a pool and someone was like 'Hey, I heard that you are the coach of water polo. How do I get my children into the sport?'" he said.
There's no official count of the number of athletes, but roughly 200 Afghans, including 15 on the national team as well as teams in Kabul and Helmand province, are playing the rough and demanding game. Piasecki said he's pleased with how the program is developing and he hopes it gets bigger.
Scott Caruso, a former personnel clerk who left the Corps in 2010 as a lance corporal, also volunteers as a water polo coach in Afghanistan. For him, it was a way to help the country as a civilian.
"I've always been active in volunteer work, so when I met Jeremy and he introduced me to the program, I knew I could and wanted to help develop it," Caruso said. "Getting involved ... was a way I could continue the mission of bringing stability to a region after I hung up my uniform."