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Special to the Enquirer/David Elwell Pat Volonino, left, and Larry Thrasher are two players on a team of 13 military veterans playing together in a Decatur Parks and Recreation League.

Homerun Veterans play for fellowship, therapy

By David Elwell

For the Enquirer 

Hartselle’s Larry Thrasher is a man on a mission, searching for ways to serve military veterans.

He and his wife Pat operate Peace-in-the-Country Inn, a bed and breakfast in Hartselle that serves as an outreach program for veterans.

Thrasher might have hit a home run with his latest idea. He wants softball to be a way to bring veterans together for fellowship and also as therapy to deal with problems like post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I visit the (Tut Fann) veterans home in Huntsville,” Thrasher said. “There are so many men in there who are dealing with issues. They need to get out and spend time with people who understand what they are going through. Softball seems like a good way to bring them together.”

Thrasher himself has dealt with PTSD from serving in the Army in Vietnam.

After some organizing and recruiting, Thrasher’s team of 13 veterans is winding up the fall season in a Decatur Parks and Recreation independent league. The team’s first game in a season-ending tournament is tonight at 6:30 p.m.

“We haven’t won a game, but we’ve sure had a lot of fun,” said team member Pat Volonino.

The minimum age for players in the league is 16. Most teams have several players in their 20s. That potentially puts the Morgan County Veterans at a slight disadvantage, as the players range in age from 49-87. Thrasher is 70. Volonino is 78.

“I told everybody who signed up that we aren’t out here for the wins,” Thrasher said. “We’re out here for each other.”

Thrasher carries several photos of season highlights on his phone. One of his favorites is of a scoreboard showing his team up 2-1 in a game.

“That’s the only time we’ve had a lead, and we kept it for two innings,” Thrasher said. “Everybody was proud of that.”

Doug Birdashaw is the oldest player at 87. The team’s catcher is 86-year-old Irv Gingus.

“I haven’t played baseball or softball in 50 years,” Gingus said. “I guess you could call me rusty, but really you could call everybody on the team rusty.”

Gingus does not drive anymore. His wife brings him to the games. He gets out of the car with a bat in one hand and a cigar in the other.

“He might not be able to drive anymore, but he can find his way to first base,” Thrasher said.

Gingus retired from the Air Force. Volonino served in the Army. The Navy and Marines are also represented on the roster. The team’s ball caps feature logos for the branch of the military each player served.

Other team members are John Carnes, Dale Shears, Sid Sawyer, Vincent Stevens, Donald Smith, Stacy Turney, Raymond Kimbrel, David Smith and Billy McAbee.

No matter how the season ends, the seed has been planted for more softball. Thrasher said he plans on having at least one team in a spring league. His goal is to eventually have multiple teams in Decatur, Hartselle, Huntsville and across north Alabama.

Ideally veterans would be playing each other and not have to play teams with players young enough to be their grandchildren.

“This has all happened by word of mouth,” Thrasher said. “I’m excited to see it grow into something really special.”