By Kaitlin Candelaria
Michael Thorin has been asked more than once whether his service to the United States was worth it.
The veteran and retired Hoover firefighter spent four years as an active member of the army before joining the Alabama Army National Guard, where he served for 20 years. He’s done multiple stateside tours and spent time in Afghanistan as an Army medic and in Iraq dealing with convoy security and transport operations.
Thorin returned to the United States and set his sites on working for the Hoover Fire Department.
“(Hoover) was the best department to go to work for,” Thorin said. “It’s notorious for being a hard department to get a job at because they require so much for you and the interview process is really strict. For me, it was a matter of pride. It was something I wanted to do, I needed a job to provide more for my family and I was determined to get a job there. Plus I like the area.”
Thorin was hired on in October 2008 and spent the next 5½ years serving the Hoover community. However, in early 2014 he began noticing that things weren’t right with his health.
“I tried regular doctors and they said nothing was wrong,” he said. “After passing out on the job in April 2014, I started the process of early retirement.”
After actively pursuing a diagnosis for his onset of mysterious symptoms, Thorin was finally diagnosed with Chronic Multi-Symptom Illness, formerly known as Gulf War Syndrome.
“A lot of people say that if I didn’t serve, I wouldn’t have these problems,” Thorin said. “But if I wouldn’t have joined, I wouldn’t have gotten a job at Hoover. I never would have met my wife, I never would have been in the position to take care of (my wife and children) for as long as I did and I wouldn’t be in the position to be as resilient as I am right now.”
Now, Thorin uses oxygen and a cane to get around. He suffers from severe asthma attacks multiple times a day.
“There are certain things that a man doesn’t want to admit in his life, one of which is that there are some things you can’t control,” Thorin said. “My family has seen me on my knees. They’ve picked me up off the floor.”
Despite his difficulties, Thorin stays positive. His says his faith has enabled him to take joy in even his worst days.
“The story of the apostle Paul has become one of my favorites,” Thorin said. “I think about his comments about taking joy in the present. He considers it pure joy to go through these things because he knows what the finish line is going to bring. At the beginning and the end of the day, I’m happy for what I’ve got. It hurts to breath right now, but it’s a joy because I know I’m still breathing.”
Thorin said he always knew that the military would be a part of his future. As a teenager growing up in Dora and Sumiton, he spent time tearing down old buildings before getting a job at the local Food World. Two years later at the tender age of 17, Thorin left for basic training.
“I’ve always been extremely grateful for our country and extremely patriotic, so it was in the cards for me to be in the military at one point or another,” he said.
After returning to the United States from Iraq in 2006, Thorin said it was difficult to adjust to civilian life. However, his job as a Hoover firefighter made a huge difference.
“All through the military, you’re basically trained to follow the rules and orders (from) above,” Thorin said. “In the oath of enlistment, we’re charged to obey the orders of the president and those appointed over us, so I’ve always been used to following a chain of command. The fire service and police departments are the closest to that chain you can find.
“It’s hard to explain it. There’s a narrative called ‘Homesick for a Place We Never Wanted to Call Home.’ It explains everything. You leave there and when you get home, you don’t know why but you want to be there. It’s hard to get back acclimated to this life. So for me, getting a job at a bigger fire department opened up those opportunities to feel like that part of my life was in control again. For a while it was very therapeutic to be back in a department the size of Hoover.”
However, Thorin said his experiences in Iraq were never far behind him.
“Every time we ran a car fire or a house fire, I was constantly having nightmares about that incident,” Thorin said. “I was having those problems at work over the last few years and had all the signs of PTSD but didn’t want to be diagnosed with it because it seemed to me like admitting defeat and like it’d pull me away from my job.”
Now that Thorin has retired, he has been diagnosed with and is working to control his PTSD.
“When I first got into the VA, I heard all the horror stories,” he said. “Getting into the VA system was real simple for me – I think the Birmingham VA is the best around. Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day and there’s a fear, especially in people who have served in the military, that it’s going to make them look weak. I myself thought for sure that I could beat it. I thought I could control my mind as much as I wanted to, but it’s a lot harder than you think, especially when you’re asleep.”
PTSD is one of many diagnoses Thorin has received in the past year. Also on the list are chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, interstitial lung disease and chronic pain. Although Thorin is still not positive what part of his service caused him to fall ill, he said that soldiers serving in the Middle East often are exposed to chemicals as well as open burn pits.
Although his illness has taken a lot from him, Thorin says he wouldn’t trade his experience in the military.
“I don’t think that at 17 years of age that I had the maturity to set goals for myself to make it anywhere in life,” Thorin said. “All I knew is that I had worked at Food World and I wanted to get out and do things but I didn’t have direction. What I found in the military is that I kind of knew how to take care of myself, but there was a bigger part of me that needed something to let me know that I could do things. The biggest thing about military training is that it teaches that whenever you think you can’t do anything else, you’ve got something left in you. It teaches you the only thing that can ever stop you is your mind and if you’ve got your mind right you could do anything.”
Since retiring from the Hoover Fire Department, Thorin has been recognized by the city of Hoover with the Freedom Award, which he received in July.
Thorin says now, he and other veterans are often thanked for their service by other members of the community. Although he said that all veterans appreciate the verbal thank yous, he said people can express their gratitude in a lot of different ways.
“I never thought I should be thanked for it because I feel like the service has done so much more for me,” he said. “Those who serve ultimately want to defend our country and our constitution and make it safer – and the best way to show the gratitude is to show respect for the country.”
He suggests always showing proper respect to the flag, making sure your children know and recite the pledge of allegiance and taking time to pay attention when the National Anthem is being performed.
“We’ve seen the worst of the worst and have been put in situations where we saw the worst in humans,” he said. “So, when you get back to the United States and you see people complaining about trivial things, it’s frustrating. Our nation is a great nation. It’s all right to fight for change, but when you do it at the expense of putting our country down, you’re overstepping your boundaries.”
So, when you ask Michael Thorin if his service to the United States was worth it, he’ll tell you: “My service to this country was definitely worth it. The military has done more for me than I can ever do for it. It’s been the one thing that’s kept me going.”