COUNTY CARLOW, Ireland — The John Corcoran visiting Fargo this week and next looks eerily like a certain Irish Special Forces soldier with a “dodgy worldview,” a guy who lived recklessly and sought satisfaction through achievement.

And yet that Irishman, who once sought happiness in military and sports accolades enlivened by biking and booze, has largely disappeared.

“To properly understand what ‘conversion’ means, it’s really going from one position to another,” Corcoran says. “My nature has changed.”

The spiritual transformation of Corcoran and two comrades, as told in “About Face: Finding Peace Within the Battle,” a book by North Dakota State University graduate Bethany Barnett, will be shared locally at several upcoming public events.

“Being involved in one or two situations — near-death experiences — prompted me to start thinking about life in a new way,” Corcoran reflects.

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The cover of "About Face: Finding Peace Within the Battle" by Bethany Barnett. Special to The Forum
The cover of "About Face: Finding Peace Within the Battle" by Bethany Barnett. Special to The Forum

When he thought he was “going to check out,” he says, his life didn’t flash before him.

“It was more regret in relationship to the fact that I was not going to see my wife and sons again, and that I could have done better there,” he says. “God spared me, and I realized he has a plan and purpose for my life.”

Barnett and Corcoran return here after an initial visit in the spring of 2018, drawn by Barnett’s love of North Dakota, her college home before moving to Ireland, and later, California.

“We made several new connections who’ve since become lifelong friends and colleagues,” she says, noting that after having a baby a year ago, she yearned to return, and Corcoran gratefully agreed.

'Reality moment'

Thomas Lawrence, who serves in the North Dakota Air National Guard, will be among those welcoming them back. He says the trauma Corcoran experienced, described in the book, revived memories of the Khobar Towers Bombing he survived while on duty in Saudi Arabia in June 1996. That truck-bomb explosion, which killed 19 airmen with over 25,000 pounds of force, was located about one-eighth of a mile from Lawrence’s housing unit.

Normally, he would have been awake and brushing his teeth around the time of the explosion, “but for some reason, I decided to sleep in that night.” When the blast happened, it blew him out of bed; the bathroom sink was destroyed.

“It’s the largest bomb that’s been used in a terrorist attack like that,” he says.

Though he struggled for years with “survivor’s guilt,” Lawrence ultimately came to see God’s hand in those spared, including a fellow soldier who witnessed the blast from a nearby patio.

“There was shrapnel and debris all around him, but he didn’t get hurt,” he says.

Corcoran’s story inspired Lawrence to speak to a group of ninth-grade Confirmation students at Hope Lutheran Church. The all-male crowd, he says, responded rather uncharacteristically. “You could hear a pin drop.”

North Dakota State University graduate Bethany Barnett is the author of "About Face: Finding Peace Within the Battle." Photos by Annie / Special to The Forum
North Dakota State University graduate Bethany Barnett is the author of "About Face: Finding Peace Within the Battle." Photos by Annie / Special to The Forum

It was through watching her own brother’s struggles following military tours that Minnesota-native Barnett felt called to write about the challenges of being a solider, particularly after meeting Corcoran through youth-ministry work in Ireland.

“When he returned from his first tour (in Iraq), he was distant and quiet,” she says of her brother, with whom she lived for a few months then. “I felt like I couldn’t reach him.”

ARCHIVE: Read more of Roxane B. Salonen's Faith Conversations

Corcoran says his own transformation didn’t happen all at once. “That turning around was like turning around a large ship or tanker,” he says, noting that it took about a decade, and was impacted by many, including his own son, who found faith at 16.

“I didn’t know who I was, or what my purpose was. I was bouncing from one wrong decision to another, and…I fell flat,” Corcoran says. “There were no bells and whistles; it was just me sitting on the floor and having a reality moment of all I had done and where I was at in my life.”

His father’s death also played a part.

“He’d been trying to reach out,” he says. “He was a fantastic fisherman, but I was more interested in rock music and motorcycles.”

Continuing, he says, “And then, one day I’m in the Middle East in a war situation. The next, I find myself in my hometown (in Ireland), and my father is dying.”

John Corcoran's story is part of the book "About Face: Finding Peace Within the Battle." Keith Dowling Photography / Special to The Forum
John Corcoran's story is part of the book "About Face: Finding Peace Within the Battle." Keith Dowling Photography / Special to The Forum

He became detached from all his relationships for a time, but that, too, has since changed. Recently, he enjoyed an Oakland Raiders football game with his sons in London.

“I’m trying to be more intentional as a father, realizing these moments are precious,” he says.

Though not everyone’s journey toward God is “born out of affliction,” Corcoran says, for each, the journey must be personal.

“Death made me stop and think, ‘What’s next?’” he says, adding that while we choose our careers and many other things, “we don’t have a choice about dying.”

Despite the hardships shared in “About Face,” which includes a foreword by 1974 Oak Grove High School graduate Tom Solhjem, Chief of Chaplains in the U.S. Army, the book ultimately offers hope for replacing a life of despair with one of peace and purpose.

If you go

What: “About Face: Finding Peace Within the Battle” book events

When and where:

  • 9-11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 19, “Veterans of Hope” talk, book signing for veterans, military personnel, family and friends at Hope Lutheran Church north campus, 2900 Broadway N., Fargo
  • 8:30 and 11 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 20, message and book signing at Hawley Alliance Church, 404 Peters St., Hawley, Minn.
  • 6-9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 24, Celebrate Recovery dinner and program at Lighthouse Church, 21 Ninth St. S., Fargo
  • 7-9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25, Community Youth Event, Hope Lutheran Church north campus, Fargo
  • 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, “Man Talk” breakfast for men, Hope Lutheran Church north campus, Fargo

Info: Events are free; to register for the Oct. 26 breakfast, search for "Man Talk" on www.eventbrite.com

Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.