Col. Donald Rutherford, new U.S. Army Europe chaplain, says chaplains should be out with the troops, not cloistered in offices and churches.

Col. Donald Rutherford, new U.S. Army Europe chaplain, says chaplains should be out with the troops, not cloistered in offices and churches. (Nancy Montgomery / S&S)

Ask Col. Donald Rutherford to tell you about his mother.

Her maiden name was Maguire, she was widowed early and reared four sons who grew up to make her just about the proudest Irishwoman around in their little upstate New York town.

One son became a lawyer, another a doctor. There’s a cop, who once playfully handcuffed her to the stove. And there’s Donald Rutherford. He’s not just a soldier and a colonel. He’s also a Roman Catholic priest. And when he imitates his mother’s musical brogue, you’d think you were back in the old country.

In fact, Rutherford, the new U.S. Army Europe chaplain, who arrived earlier this month after a year in Iraq, said he thinks of himself as a priest first and a soldier second. And the two never conflict, he said. “You’re taking care of soldiers and their families — people who are very much in need,” he said.

Rutherford, 50, has been a priest half his life. He joined ROTC in college, and had been teaching biology in a parish high school for nine years while in the Army Reserve.

A friend tried to recruit him full-time into the Army’s chaplain corps. He asked Rutherford, “Isn’t it time you got rid of that nice, warm parish and do something for a living?”

“It’s interesting…,” Rutherford said last week in his new office on Campbell Barracks. “If you ask somebody, they might say, ‘Yes.’”

Rutherford said yes. His bishop told him he could stay away three years. That was 16 years ago.

“I was at Fort Bragg,” Rutherford said. “I was jumping out of airplanes and going on ruck marches. I was meeting interesting people. I was having a good time. I was doing well and I wasn’t embarrassing anybody.”

Rutherford served as Multi-National Corps-Iraq chaplain until January. He supervised nearly 300 “religious support teams” throughout the theater, trying to ensure that they were providing spiritual guidance and support to the troops.

It was not an easy job, he said.

“It’s trying. You go through the same questions (as anyone else). It’s dangerous. You try to draw upon your faith and instill that faith in the soldiers. You sleep well at night, there’s no question about it.”

He said he did not have statistics on the percentage of troops who attended religious services in Iraq, but that all services in every denomination were well-attended.

“What do they say? There’s no atheists in foxholes.”

One of his fondest memories from Iraq was Easter Sunday in 2005, when it turned out there was an isolated base without a priest to celebrate Mass. Rutherford got on a Black Hawk and presided over Mass himself, then stayed a while to talk.

“That’s what they remember — you were out there with them. That was a big thing for them, the young troops in an FOB in the middle of nowhere — and you’re sitting there, listening to them,” he said. “That’s what we’re all about.”

Chaplains, he said, are there to make life better for soldiers and their families. They must remain noncombatants at all times, even in places such as Iraq.

“You don’t carry a weapon,” he said. “You will not carry a weapon. If I found one of my folks carrying a weapon, guess where he’s going to be? Out.”

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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