Shane Thorson had pulled over to reach for a bag of sunflower seeds on the way to coach a high school football game when an unexpected text message from his wife lit up his phone.
It came as a shock when Thorson, 42, looked at the text to see a picture of a certificate for a Purple Heart with his name on it.
The medal is awarded to those wounded or killed during military service. It had been more than 20 years since Thorson first joined the Army as a teen and a decade since explosions from mortar rounds at a U.S. military base in Iraq left him injured.
A mix of emotions rushed over the Connell police sergeant as he stared at the phone.
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“I broke down right then,” Thorson said. “That’s 20 years of military (service) that I had done. It closed a good chapter in my life.”
Thorson joined the Army Reserve as a 17-year-old high school student and later left college in his home state of Alabama in 1993 to pursue a career in the military, something that had become a right of passage in his family.
He was stationed in Germany with the the 3rd Infantry Division before returning to college, he said. He then rejoined the Army with the 101st Airborne Division and was stationed at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
I’m just thankful I got one while I was alive. There are a lot of other people that didn’t get to see theirs.
Shane Thorson, on receiving the Purple Heart for battle wounds
In 1999, Thorson decided to go into law enforcement and applied for a job at the Kennewick Police Department, where he was hired as a young patrol officer. He picked the Tri-Cities, he said, after searching on the Internet for the fastest-growing areas in the nation.
During his five years as a patrolman with the department, Thorson learned leadership skills from older officers, including current Chief Ken Hohenberg, and self-discipline, he said.
“I was lacking a little bit of that mental confidence,” Thorson said. “They did a very good job at helping me build that.”
Thorson developed diverticulitis — which caused severe pain in his large intestine — while on the job and was forced to take an extended period of time off, he said. The pain and stress became so bad that Thorson eventually stepped away from the department.
A few months later, Thorson was watching a Monday Night Football game when his phone rang. A person on the other end of the line told him he’d been called back into the military and to report the next morning.
“I hung up because I thought it was one of my police buddies messing with me,” Thorson said.
The call was not a prank, however, and Thorson left the next morning for Portland. He bounced around to a few military bases, focusing on infantry and sniper training, before being deployed to Iraq in early 2005.
The base where Thorson stayed routinely endured mortar attacks and was nicknamed “Mortaritaville.”
Thorson, an infantryman, felt like he was prepared for war from the years of training he received, but it wasn’t until he set foot in the Middle East that he realized the reality of the situation.
“The first thing we saw was caskets with American flags on them being put into an Army airplane,” he said. “That’s when you knew this was for real.”
Thorson deployed with the XVIII Airborne Corps and was stationed at the Logistics Support Area base Anaconda in Balad, Iraq, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. He was part of a platoon of about 30 soldiers, called a quick reactionary force, acting as first responders and doing reconnaissance to keep others safe during missions.
The base where Thorson stayed routinely endured mortar attacks and was nicknamed “Mortaritaville.” Part of his job was to identify where the mortars were fired from and who was shooting them.
One day before heading out on a mission, Thorson was checking vehicles to make sure they were loaded with all the proper equipment, he said. There had been a bomb slipped under one of the vehicles days before, so his nerves were heightened.
“The next thing you know, the mortars came in,” he said. “There were like four of five of them that landed in the vicinity of where I was at.”
The blasts were so powerful that they knocked Thorson out. The next thing he remembers is waking up in pain.
The explosions broke his wrist, tore up an elbow and injured the c3 and c4 vertebrae in his neck.
The explosions broke his wrist, tore up an elbow and injured the c3 and c4 vertebrae in his neck. He recovered in the hospital on base for a few days before being transferred to Germany for more treatment. He eventually returned to Richland for surgery on his damaged elbow.
Although he was grateful that he escaped without any life-threatening injuries, Thorson was left with a feeling that had failed his fellow soldiers.
“You feel like you let the other guys down. People depend on you to do certain things,” he said. “There was a lot of guilt and remorse. You feel like you didn’t accomplish the mission you set out to do.”
It took Thorson months before he could physically and mentally return to a normal civilian life, he said. He spent the next year and a half with his wife, Janelle, and substitute teaching for the Richland School District.
At the end of April in 2008, Thorson was again deployed back to Iraq — at the same base where he was injured, now called Joint Base Balad.
It didn’t take long before Thorson returned to the exact spot where he was nearly blown up.
I said to myself, ‘I win. I’m not defeated.’
Shane Thorson, on returning to the spot where he was struck by mortar fire
“I said to myself, ‘I win. I’m not defeated,’ ” he told the Herald.
Thorson, who deployed with the Washington National Guard’s 81st Heavy Brigade Combat Team, spent almost a year in Iraq, mostly working security for special operations, before being selected to attend Army officer candidate school in Maryland, where he ended up becoming a second lieutenant, he said.
He quickly joined the Connell Police Department after returning to the Tri-Cities in the summer of 2010. He will give up his sergeant stripes soon when he transfers to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office to work as a patrolman again.
Thorson, who is now retired from the military, has used his experiences to help influence the kids he coaches, he said.
The veteran expects to get his actual Purple Heart medal next year.
“I’m just thankful I got one while I was alive,” he said. “There are a lot of other people that didn’t get to see theirs.”