The Center for International Stabilization and Recovery has spread its footprint from Harrisonburg to places across the world since its founding in 1996. CISR’s primary goal is to help areas ravaged by war bounce back. This manifests itself in a myriad of projects and programs, from training courses to the publication of a magazine called The Journal of Conventional Weapons Destruction.
One of the areas that CISR focuses on is landmines, which in the aftermath of war still pose a threat to those living in areas where they were planted. Old landmines can still explode and do damage. CISR’s director, Ken Rutherford, is the survivor of a landmine explosion himself, which preceded over two decades of landmine advocacy work. He shared his story with us.
Ken Rutherford’s introduction to landmines was an abrupt one.
After graduating from the University of Colorado in 1985, Rutherford went to work with the Peace Corps in Africa for over two years before coming back to the U.S. to get his Master of Business Administration and work at a World Bank consulting firm.
While back in the U.S., he got the itch to go back to work in the field. He wanted to apply the skills he learned in his master’s program, and he had a feeling that economic empowerment was a key to alleviating the effects of factors like poverty and forced migration. So Rutherford got a job with the International Rescue Committee. With the IRC, Rutherford worked in Somalia to try to help turn things around in a country damaged by civil war by jumpstarting local economies.
After five months in Somalia, on Dec. 16, 1993, a landmine blew up an SUV that Rutherford was traveling in.
"That was my introduction, introduction 101 [to landmines],” Rutherford said. “And I ended up losing both my legs, and I almost lost my life."
Rutherford’s recovery spanned five hospitals in four different countries, and approximately 18 different operations.
“I've been very blessed, really blessed,” Rutherford said.
Following the accident, Rutherford said that, at one point, he thought his life was going to be over with. He asked his fiancé to leave him. But he said that discussion lasted about five seconds before she got mad, told him not to say that again and told him that they were, in fact, getting married.
“So, with support like that you can't fail,” Rutherford said.
The two got married and Rutherford decided he wanted to be a professor and teach global politics because of his love of history and political science. So Rutherford and his family moved to Washington, D.C. where he eventually earned his Ph.D. at Georgetown University in 2000.
But Rutherford began his landmine advocacy work in the ’90s after his accident. In 1994 he told his story of being a landmine survivor as part of the U.S. Senate’s Global Landmine Crisis hearing.
The following year, Rutherford and Jerry White, another landmine survivor started the Landmine Survivors Network (LSN), which was a group of landmine survivors around the world.
The LSN grew to eventually have six overseas offices and approximately 100 staff members, with 40 full-time staff in Washington, D.C.
Rutherford said one of the “high-water marks” of that work was hosting Diana, Princess of Wales, in Bosnia-Herzegovina in August 1997. The trip occurred just weeks before Princess Diana died in a car accident, but her support of landmine advocacy helped efforts to get victim assistance written into the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997.
“By her joining forces with us, it really raised the mark of landmines,” Rutherford said. “Many Americans said they found out about landmines through Princess Diana.”
LSN was also one of the approximately 1,000 groups in the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.
“What it did is it sealed a moral victory for us,” Rutherford said. “That the world recognized that landmines were a global humanitarian problem. And a crisis.”
After getting his Ph.D., Rutherford went on to teach political science at Missouri State University from 2002-10. He enjoyed the experience, but what made him leave was an opening at JMU’s Center for International Stabilization and Recovery.
CISR, originally known as the Humanitarian Demining Information Center and later the Mine Action Information Center, was founded in 1996. Rutherford knew the center’s first director, Dennis Barlow, and came to JMU three times for various events.
When Barlow retired, Rutherford applied for the director position and was hired in 2010. He said the move was kind of a “no-brainer.”
"I thought it was a continuation of the evolution of mine action, and trying to reduce the humanitarian suffering caused by mines,” Rutherford said of CISR’s work.
Rutherford’s goals when he arrived included improving the integration of CISR’s work into the greater university and expanding beyond landmines to do work in broader issues like disabilities and refugees.
"Just because I lost my legs to a landmine doesn't mean I have to be a landmine guy,” Rutherford said.
Six years into his tenure, he has achieved a lot of that already. For instance, he has taught a course at JMU on nongovernmental organizations, and CISR has developed programs to help refugees in Harrisonburg.
CISR is funded by government grants, and progress helps to keep the center afloat.
“If we don't grow or go into other areas, we're not going to be around in two or three years,” Rutherford said. “You always have to look to create, and create value and add value."
In the next five to 10 years, Rutherford sees CISR transforming into a full umbrella organization with multiple entities underneath, in the areas of landmines, disabilities, ending war and information management. The center is also proposing a course called Global Disability Studies.
Rutherford, now 53, said he could spend another lifetime doing the work he has done the last 20 years. But he said he still has gas in the tank.
"I almost died in Somalia,” Rutherford said. “I got blown up, I was trying to put my foot back on and I wrote my eulogy. And I'm living it ... So that's why I love every day. There's not enough hours in the day. My biggest drawback is I only get 24."