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Survivor Mauritania RPCV Ken Rutherford grows into activist foe of land mines
Survivor Mauritania RPCV Ken Rutherford grows into activist foe of land mines
Survivor grows into activist foe of land mines
Ken Rutherford "wanted to be part of the solution" and assist other victims.
By Steve Koehler
The check that came in the mail was made out to Kenneth Rutherford in the amount of $25,000.
It was an insurance payment, the price of a leg lost to a land mine in Somalia.
Rutherford used the money as a down payment on a house in Boulder, Colo., and saw the windfall as a good sign.
"The stars were lining up perfectly," the always-positive Rutherford said.
The loss of his leg in 1993 brought Rutherford more than just a check.
As one of just a handful of American civilian land mine survivors, Rutherford gained instant notoriety through newspaper reports and became a sought-after speaker on national television.
"People wanted my blood-and-guts story," Rutherford said. But he wanted to do more than just tell what happened.
"I wanted to be part of the solution and that was assistance to land mine victims. There needed to be a long-term solution," Rutherford said.
After appearing on PBS in 1994, Rutherford got the audience he wanted when Sen. Patrick Leahy invited him to Washington to testify before his committee looking into banning land mine exports.
Rutherford's appearance was a moving experience, Leahy remembered.
"Ken came in and hobbled to the witness table and started telling his story. It became absolutely still. I've only seen that two or three times. A couple of the TV cameramen were crying. I was so choked up, I had a hard time continuing."
Speaking invitations poured in from around the world — London, Geneva, Vienna. At an engagement in Denver in 1995, Rutherford was urged by an audience member to contact another American land mine survivor, a man who'd lost a leg in Israel.
His name was Jerry White.
Starting a group
White initially wondered if Rutherford was "just another wacko" land mine survivor like others he had met over the years.
"They became very attached to me, and I wondered if this happened to all land mine survivors," White said from his Washington office of the Landmine Survivors Network, where he is executive director.
But White couldn't ignore Rutherford's passion.
Over dinner in a Washington restaurant, Rutherford made his pitch to White.
"Something has happened to you and you should do something about it," he told White.
The two attended a United Nations conference on land mines in Vienna and afterward decided to establish the Landmine Survivors Network.
The organization was designed to improve the health, increase the opportunities and strengthen the rights of land mine survivors.
Using money from family and churches, the organization was opened in 1997 in Washington. Now, LSN has six offices around the world and employs 100.
But before he could help other land mine survivors, Rutherford had to take care of himself.
Losing the other leg
In 1997, Rutherford decided the leg that had survived the explosion four years earlier had to go.
The motivation to have his left leg taken off came in a dream Rutherford had about their oldest son, Hayden, who was barely a year old at the time.
"He was walking faster than I could walk. I had a cane. I feared he was going to run off the end of the sidewalk and into the street. I was thinking about Hayden being hit by a car. It made me conclude that there had to be a better way," he said.
Kim Rutherford agreed with her husband's decision. She had seen him in a lot of pain. He was becoming less active. He was crawling on the floor instead of using his leg and cane.
Rutherford felt sorry for everything he was putting his wife through, too.
"Kim would have to take me to Georgetown. She had three babies while we were there. She had to load the stroller in the car, load the wheelchair. It was hard seeing her go through that," he said.
In February, 1997 Rutherford's plastic surgeon agreed to take the leg off.
Alone in his room the night before the surgery, Rutherford thought about what was ahead.
"Tomorrow morning, they're going to take a knife and take the leg," he said to himself.
"It was a hard decision. Not only are you going to lose a part of yourself forever, you're not going to have any legs."
But Rutherford awoke the next morning knowing he was making the right decision.
A few months later, Rutherford's group got a boost that the world would notice.
A date with Diana
The Landmine Survivors Network was a year old when it co-sponsored a conference that featured Princess Diana as keynote speaker.
Earlier in the year, the princess had spoken out on banning land mines.
Rutherford spoke after the princess, telling her and the audience that "survivors take small steps and we are grateful for what we have, not what we don't have."
The two met again a few weeks later in Washington, at a Red Cross conference.
"Ken, please call me whenever you need my help. I mean it," she told Rutherford."
Rutherford's group took Diana up on her offer and invited her to Bosnia, where they planned to begin a project surveying land-mine-disabled populations.
The princess accepted. Her visit with survivors and government officials in Bosnia was an emotional one.
The Associated Press reported at the time that the princess broke down in tears when she spoke to a 15-year-old girl who lost her right leg below the knee.
Diana wrote individual letters to Rutherford and White thanking them for inviting her on the trip.
"I could not help but be intensely moved by the needless and senseless injuries of the victims I met and, no less so, by the sensitive care and support they received from their families," she wrote in an Aug. 12, 1997, letter to Rutherford.
Experts think it may have been the last letter Diana wrote. Less than three weeks later, the princess died in a car accident in Paris.
The LSN continued to press for survivors rights. In 1995, the international land mine treaty, which included rights for survivors, was developed and has been approved by more than 135 countries.
But the United States is among those countries that has not given its OK to the document, which disappoints Rutherford.
"It's not being a very good neighbor. We're calling in chips on the war on terrorism but when other countries called in chips on the land mine treaty, we didn't respond," he said.
Normal home life
Rutherford walks on artificial legs made from titanium. Each contains a tiny pump that helps him stride forward.
He walks well. Some of his students don't know he's legless. He can play a mean game of golf and drive a car without any special devices.
Kim Rutherford accepts her husband's few limitations without complaint.
"There are physical things around the house that I have to do. You just do what you have to to get by," she said.
Before he goes to bed every night, Rutherford gets his legs ready for the next day with shoes and pants on them.
"It's like a fireman who jumps into his boots and jumps down the pole," he said.
Rutherford rises between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. and pulls on stump socks and other protective wear before stuffing the ends of his legs into the holster-like seats that accept his stumps.
He makes breakfast for his four children, Hayden, 8; Campbell, 7; Duncan, 5; and Lucie, 4.
It's as normal a life as he can live, but he admits: "I'm always reminded I don't have legs. But I don't feel like a victim. I have been blessed. Where would I be with legs? Would I have four beautiful kids? Would I have a beautiful, loving wife? Would I be at SMS? Would I be in Springfield? The answers would probably be no, no, no and no."
Rutherford knows difficult times are ahead. As he grows older, he will have to give up the artificial legs and return to a wheelchair, tough for a man accustomed to freely coming and going on artificial legs.
Teach them well
One of the most frequent questions Rutherford hears as he travels the world is: How in the heck did you end up at SMS?
"They didn't ask me for my dissertation," he said with a laugh — he hadn't finished it when he started searching for work.
Many universities wanted to see his doctoral dissertation. SMS didn't and hired him in 2000. Rutherford eventually finished his dissertation.
SMS President John Keiser called Rutherford the embodiment of the school's public affairs mission.
"He's as energetic and positive as anyone I've seen. Students respond to the positive attitude he has," Keiser said.
Brent Maxwell, a senior at SMS, switched his major to political science after taking a few of Rutherford's classes.
"He's been through so much and has come so far. It's phenomenal. It kind of inspires you," he said.
Judy Kiagiri, an international student from Kenya, said she admires Rutherford because "he made something great of himself" and that has inspired her to do the same.
"I want to go back home with a greater purpose. It makes me want to do stuff," she said.
Having an impact
Rutherford has been an inspiration to strangers, celebrities and even his own family.
Rutherford had an impact on a very influential group of people late last year when he spoke to a meeting of the Freedom Fields organization in Carmel, Calif., a group working to eliminate mine fields in Cambodia. The audience included actors Clint Eastwood, Sean Penn and Robin Wright Penn.
Rutherford told his story and those of other victims, which brought tears to the eyes of audience members and raised thousands of dollars.
Mia Hamway, the group's leader, called Rutherford "an amazing motivator."
"He is a perfect example of someone who has been touched by the needs of the people and the world. He closes the deal," she said.
Rutherford plans to keep pressing the land mine issue and will speak to Hamway's group in November.
"There's always going to be disabled. There's always going to be a need out there," he said.
Rutherford's best work may have taken place within the confines of the family home.
The Rutherfords' son Duncan was born with a severe form of rickets that softens his bones. As he grew, his legs bowed to the point that late last year, the 5-year-old was no taller than his 4-year-old sister.
Duncan was losing his teeth because the phosphorus in his body was being excreted through his urine.
Earlier this year, Duncan went to a St. Louis hospital to have the bones surgically broken and straightened. He will be in leg braces for years.
Duncan roams the house in a wheelchair just like Dad does sometimes.
The family believes Duncan's good attitude about the operation and braces comes from seeing his dad cope so well.
"Duncan has never complained about his legs, and Kim thinks part of that is because he sees me. It's easier on Kim and me because he doesn't complain. He's so gracious about that," he said.
No one has been more inspired by Rutherford and his work than Kim Rutherford.
She's kept the family going, given Duncan special attention when needed, given her husband support and made the best of what could have been a very trying situation.
She credits her husband for her strength and outlook on life.
"Ken has taught me that everything is going to be OK," she said, watching her husband share a hearty laugh with the children in nearby room.
"I'm not a very religious person but I do believe, thanks to Ken, that whatever you're given in life, you can make the best of it."