FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- As an archaeologist living in rural northern New York working for the military, she is destined to feel like an oddball at times. If she ever wrote a memoir, she said it would probably be called "Square Peg Smooshed into Round Hole."
Among peers in her profession, however, Dr. Laurie Rush is no oddball. She's brilliant, even "out there," one colleague said.
Since 2001, she has led the installation's Cultural Resources Program from one accomplishment to another. In recent years, many cultural heritage professionals in the private and public sectors worldwide have sought out the Army archaeologist.
Rush's unique understanding for heritage preservation issues in crisis areas such as Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya is opening more doors than she can find the time to walk through.
Last year, she even caught the attention of officials from the prestigious American Academy in Rome -- a 115-year-old think tank that fosters the creative and scholarly pursuits of American intellectuals who work and teach in the arts and humanities. They awarded Rush the "Rome Prize" scholarship to study for a year in the academy's old-world villa.
"I have the best bosses in the world," Rush said upon her recent return from Rome. "And it's not unusual for my colleagues to say: 'You have the best bosses in the world.'"
Rush became the first DoD employee to ever attend the American Academy in Rome in an official capacity. Amid umbrella pines and the smell of gourmet cooking, she immediately began working on a textbook for U.S. military schools and senior DoD officials. She said the book will teach troops how to bed down in combat areas while establishing DoD guidance for the treatment of culturally important places.
Rush also spent time researching the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Patrimony, a national police force capable of deploying anywhere in the world on cultural property protection missions.
From Rome, Rush was invited to deliver dozens of lectures on cultural heritage protection at conferences throughout Europe and Asia, including Germany, Jordan, Austria and the U.K.
During a trip to Turkey sponsored by the U.S. State Department, she gave a series of lectures at Turkish universities, including the keynote address at a cultural studies conference at Ege University in Izmir. She said it was the week after the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden, and elements of the Turkish population were extreme-ly angry.
At another conference in July, Rush sat on a panel of experts convened in Naples by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to address growing international concerns over the protect- ion of cultural property in war-torn Libya.
Her extensive research in Rome supported her chief role at Fort Drum -- boosting the strategic mission of Army counterinsurgency campaigns overseas by training and fostering respect among Soldiers for archaeological sites, historic buildings and sacred places.
"I'm extraordinarily grateful," Rush said. "That an ordinary Army employee could be offered the opportunity to just take their ideas and run … is just extraordinary."
Personal tragedies, triumphs
Rush's unassuming demeanor does not always match the accomplishments of an eminent archaeologist of international standing. She's poised, but she admits she was once a socially skittish wo- man, afraid to even stand before her students while teaching at the State University of New York at Potsdam.
To deal with it, Rush said she took up adult figure skating in the 1990s, subjecting herself to the humiliation of shaking before a panel of judges to help conquer her fear of facing audiences.
Ironically, her figure skating aspirations really took off after she broke her arm a second time on the ice. The orthopedic surgeon who set it shared her love for ice dancing, and the two teamed up. They eventually competed in Lake Placid at the National Adult Figure Skating Championships and came in fifth place for a dance called the "Fiesta Tango."
"That cured stage fright for me," she said. "If you ice skate in front of people, talking in front of people is much easier."
Rush's lifelong trek into the world of archaeology began in the early 1970s, when she left her home in Connecticut to study anthropology at Indiana University in Bloomington. She said she chose the school hundreds of miles away partly because "Midwestern kids are friendlier than East Coast kids."
One of those friendly Midwesterners caught her eye the very first week of school. She later married Jack Rush while he was attending medical school at the University of Chicago and she was pursuing her doctorate in anthropology at Northwestern.
In 1980, they had their first child, Benjamin. Their second son, Brandon, was born one month after they arrived in Clayton in 1983. The scholarship her husband used for medical school in Chicago required three years of work in a health manpower shortage area, for which the North Country qualified.
Rush noted her husband has been the "beloved village doctor" in Clayton ever since.
The couple also had three daughters: Kimberly in 1985; and twins Caitlin and Elizabeth in 1989. Rush said she developed an interest in rescuing and raising everything from dogs and cats to bunnies and hedgehogs as well.
Somehow, she managed to find time to continue her career. Rush wrote grants and curated exhibits at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton during the 1980s and branched out on her own during the 1990s, when she became a museum and archaeology consultant throughout northern New York.
In addition to private sector work, she received government grants and contracts, including one from the National Endowment for the Humanities and another with the Army Corps of Engineers to set up an artifact curation facility in the office where she works from today.
"My husband and I have an agreement, which is still in force, that we would move anywhere that I could find a job," Rush said. "We figured the tricky person to employ is me, with a PhD in anthropology.
"He's been so consistently supportive and understanding," she added. "He always gave me so much latitude so that I could work to my potential."
Rush's story has not been without its fair share of personal heart-ache, however.
In a tragic incident in 1997, Benjamin, her firstborn son, died at age 17. Rush said her second oldest, who was 14 at the time, took the loss extremely hard.
"Brandon will always miss his older brother," Rush said. "But he's doing really well and has triumphed over all kinds of challenges. We're really proud of him."
Meanwhile, Rush said Kimberly is in her second year of medical school, Caitlin is finishing an engineering degree and Elizabeth is apparently following in her mother's footsteps by majoring in anthropology.
In 1998, when archaeologists employed at Fort Drum left unexpectedly, Rush agreed to fill in for a few weeks. She was quickly brought on as a permanent contractor.
Since becoming program manager in 2001, her cultural resources team has won nearly a dozen Army- and DoD-level awards, including the 2009 Army Communities of Excellence award under the exemplary practices category.
Her work in transforming the way Soldiers treat culturally sensitive places, including Native Ame-rican ancestral places on post, helped bring the ACOE award to Fort Drum for the first time. She said a highlight was accompanying the garrison commander to Washington, D.C., last year to accept the award on behalf of the installation.
Rush also received major attention not long ago for creating more than 150,000 decks of Heritage Resource Preservation pictured playing cards, disseminated to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to help Soldiers identify and protect ancient artifacts and archaeological sites they may encounter in theater.
Currently, two other archaeologists work on staff with Rush: Margaret "Meg" Schulz, a survey team and program coordinator; and Duane Quates, a recent addition to the team. She also works closely with Fort Drum's Land Rehabilitation and Maintenance, whose heavy equipment operators build mock archaeological sites, cemeteries and other structures.
"We really value our partnership with the folks at LRAM," Rush said. "They are definitely a major secret to our success."
Although Rush no longer fears facing generals as much as she used to, she said she still remembers the dread of being summoned to the main conference room in Hays Hall to brief ranking officers.
"As a social scientist, my impression of the Eagle's Nest is that it's a room designed to be as intimidating as possible for briefers," she said. "And it works! If that was their intent, they mastered it."
The road ahead
With a steady flow of invitations from around the world, two upcoming conferences to organize in Rome and England, contributions to textbooks due, universities asking her to speak to students, and two books percolating inside of her, Rush is a busy woman.
"I'm really finding that I have to start to figure out how to pace myself," she said.
But a passion to protect cultural properties and places drives her, especially because of its strategic value for Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division (LI).
Down range, Rush said it is "mission critical" for U.S. personnel to seek a "zero footprint" impact on cultural property and places. She said an educated fighting force understands what's important to the population of their host nation, noting that the motto at the Afghan National Museum is "A Nation Stays Alive When its Culture Stays Alive."
"That's a value in Afghan society that Americans don't hear about very often," she said.
"I think we still need to be thinking really hard about where we settle, in terms of bedding down," Rush added. "A defensible position 8,000 years ago is a defensible position today. So there is that pattern where any new military force coming into an area is going to go into an ancient fortress.
"I would be the last person to tell one of our deploying personnel that they can't be inside one of those mud-brick walls," she said. "So then the question is how do we operate within the constraints of that kind of setting so that those ancient mud-brick walls are still there when we go home?"
It's a rhetorical question -- one that Rush's job with the Army requires that she ask every day.
Having to deal with such complex and tough issues is partly why she sometimes feels like that square peg among round holes.