Vietnam War veteran and LV MSBL luminary Ernest "Turk" Starniri was selected to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in a somber ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
The former Lehigh Valley Men's Baseball League president and current coach of the Three Mugs Pub Moondogs was invited for the honor Saturday, June 16, in Washington, D.C., after reaching out to the cemetery through a fellow Vietnam veteran and waiting for several years.
The wreath laying is limited to one group per day, and thousands of groups apply for the honor.
"This was something I always wanted to do and I waited many years for the opportunity," said Starniri, who left Pittsburgh Pirates spring training camp when he was drafted into the war in 1964.
"The ceremony was only 15 minutes in duration, the wreath was presented, 'Taps' was played and the many people who were there, I’m sure, were very impressed," Starniri said. "The ceremony was very rewarding and therapeutic for me and it brought me back to a time when 58,000 men never came home."
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, or Tomb of the Unknowns, honors U.S. service members who died in battle and could not be identified.
Vietnam veteran Barry Kennedy and Iraq veteran Mike Sales joined Starniri at the ceremony.
Starniri played one year of college ball then left for Pirates camp at the urging of pro scouts, according to The Morning Call newspaper. It was during his first, and last, Pirates camp that Starniri was drafted into the military.
He served two years, including one year deployed in Vietnam. Upon his return, he decided his baseball career was over. He recalled the difficulty of returning to civilian life.
"As most Combat Vets realized, coming home was not a pleasant experience," Starniri said. "The anti-war movement was at its height and all returning vets became emersed in the mood of the nation while many had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life. That’s why most Vets will greet each other with 'Welcome home,' because they never heard it when they returned from war."
"I don't know why I made the decision not to pursue baseball," Starniri told The Morning Call.
Starniri wouldn't pick up a baseball bat again until 1988 when he joined the LV MSBL in its innaugural season. Starniri has since 1989 coached the Moondogs, the most charitable team in Lehigh Valley amateur baseball.
The 50 Hours of Baseball event steered by Starniri and chairman and fellow Moondog Ed Bartholomew for 17 years raised $240,000 for Camelot for Children and Dream Come True, according to Moondogs records. More recent charitable efforts by the Moondogs have benefitted the Miracle League of the Lehigh Valley.
The LV MSBL this season renewed its relationship with Dream Come True in an effort to raise money for an 11-year-old boy who has brain cancer.