Diana, Princess of Wales (center) with landmine survivors in Bosnia - August 9, 1997. Ken Rutherford (far left) and Jerry White (far right), American landmine survivors and Co-Founders of Landmine Survivors Network. Zarko Peric (left of Diana) and Malic Bradaric (right of Diana), Bosnian landmine survivors.
“Giving back is a very important part of being a survivor. It adds a sense of worth to one’s life.”
*A note from the writer: My godfather, Dr. Ken Rutherford, or whom I call “Uncle Ken”, has held a presence in my life ever since I could remember. Ken and my father have been best friends since they were kids. Like many other people, I feel lucky to know him. He has a bunch of interesting stories to tell from his travels around the world. He was a part of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning campaign to globally ban landmines, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, and worked with the late Diana, Princess of Wales. At Green Ribbon Club, we recently have been talking about getting interviews with professionals who can talk about their experiences with mental health, and he was one of the people to pop up in my head. Not because of his impressive resume, but because of his incredible story, and the simple fact that he inspires me.
Now entering adulthood, I want to start asking the people in my life who inspire me deeper and bigger questions.... and to be prepared for deeper and bigger answers. As I was preparing for this interview, I asked myself, What can I learn from Uncle Ken about the topic of mental health? What can others learn from him?
A Positive Mind
Ken lost the lower part of his legs in a landmine explosion while he was in a vehicle in the Somali desert, near the border of Ethiopia. Eight Somali people were also in the vehicle.
The first thing Ken felt was shock. “Growing up in Boulder, Colorado...You don’t hear about these things,” he recalls. When the car hit the landmine, he noticed the excessive amounts of blood pouring out from his legs and feet. He gained control of the radio and called for rescue. He drifted in and out of this mindset that the next breath he was going to take might be his last. “I thought I was dying.” There came a point where he actually thought he had died.
But then Ken thought, “What if I lived?” In this moment of introspection, Ken identified the three central goals in his life: to be a professor, a father, and a husband. Miraculously, Ken survived the accident and less than a decade later, he stepped into the shoes of all those three roles. He is a political science professor at James Madison University, father to five children, and husband to wife Kim.
He never saw the accident as a negative event in his life. Rather, he viewed it as a positive because it gave him guidance to the direction he wanted to take his life. Ken attributes part of this to the fact that he was fully conscious when it happened, opposed to waking up later to find that he had lost both his legs. Being conscious during the accident allowed him to identify his three aspirations for life: teaching, fatherhood, and marriage. Identifying his goals ignited a passion for living the most wondrous life he could ever live. Ken’s optimism has inspired many, including myself.
Strong Systems of Support
Through his work with landmine survivors, Ken has realized that survivors of traumatic events recover better mentally when they are supported by their loved ones. He admits that he himself was extremely lucky to have had a strong support system of friends, family, and his wife Kim. When Kim was still his girlfriend, he asked her to leave him but she didn’t. She stayed with him. He recalls that if his wife had left him, things might have ended up differently. Without that strong, emotional support from Kim, his family, and friends, how would he have healed?
Giving Back is Fulfilling
In working directly with survivors of landmines, war, and trauma, Ken says that helping others helped him heal. He states that “Giving back is a very important part of being a survivor. It adds a sense of worth to one’s life.” He explains how the acting of sharing the painful experience creates a connection between survivors, and that this connection helps each individual feel less alone.
Ken with landmine survivor in Vietnam, 2012.
In helping others, strength absolutely exists in numbers. Ken cofounded the Landmine Survivors Network after bonding over mutual experience with fellow landmine survivor. He worked with Princess Diana, who Ken calls a “moral entrepreneur.” According to Ken, she was the first celebrity who listened to them about the issue of landmines that so much of the world was turning a blind eye. Princess Diana was the biggest star of the media in 1997. Ken recalls Princess Diana saying that “The media has made life horrible so I would like to make their lives’ horrible.” And she did. She put a spotlight on the landmine issue through her humanitarian efforts. Diana has taught a plethora of people, both famous and not, to use their platform and voice to help others who need us.
Something to Think About
What we can learn from Ken is that believing in yourself and your future can bolster your will to live tenaciously, to persist. In a sense, believing in himself and his future saved his life.
We can also learn that altruism gives others and yourself an infusion of strength. Being supportive of others who have gone through similar painful experiences brings the light and love out of the darkness. Telling people that it’s going to be okay, you’ll fight your way through this, and being someone else’s rock are all empowering to both the person receiving the words and the person saying them.
As I write this piece, I realize that Ken is absolutely correct. Believing in myself and my goals in life have led me to wondrous opportunities, moments, friendships. As someone who has experience with depression and anxiety, working for Green Ribbon Club has been incredibly rich in fulfillment and strength for me. At this organization I have been able to share my own personal experiences, create a platform for people to tell their own stories, promote self-care, and destigmatize mental illness, all while collaborating with a lovely group of individuals. I really haven’t thought much about it until now, but giving back to others has certainly given back something to me. So perhaps the greatest thing I have learned from my Uncle Ken is...putting love out into the world strengthens the love inside yourself.
I challenge you to take a moment to think, what areas of life have you struggled? What moments brought you the most pain? And now...think about the other people who are experiencing something similar. Or think about people you know who are in need of support. Dig deep, take a breath, and realize that you have the will, the strength, and the power to make a positive difference in someone else's life.