Col Noel T. Nicolle and Command Sgt. Maj. John F. McNeirney hold the garrison's prizes Tuesday after receiving the Army Communities of Excellence silver award in San Antonio. The award gives Fort Drum the distinction of being one of the top places for Soldiers and Families to live among more than 100 other duty stations. The award also comes with a $500,000 prize.

FORT DRUM, NY -- Fort Drum may no longer be "The Army's Best Kept Secret."

On Tuesday, the garrison's command group was in Texas to accept the 2011 Army Communities of Excellence "silver" award, marking the first time Fort Drum ever received the coveted distinction.

In addition to respect, acclaim and prestige, the award includes a $500,000 prize.

"This award backs up what we here in the North Country have known all along - very few installations compare to Fort Drum when it comes to standard of living and services available," said Col. Noel T. Nicolle, Fort Drum garrison commander.

Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, IMCOM commanding general, and the honorable Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, presented the award Tuesday to Nicolle and Command Sgt. Maj. John F. McNeirney, Fort Drum garrison command sergeant ma-jor, during the Installation Management Symposium in San Antonio.

Sponsored by the Army chief of staff and the assistant chief of staff for installation management, the ACOE program has been singling out installations for excellence in innovation, strategic planning, ground-breaking initiatives and business process improvements for more than 25 years.

Judging is based on various standards, including the highly competitive Malcolm Baldrige National Quality criteria.

These efforts directly affect the quality of support to the Soldiers, Families, civilian employees and retirees who work, play and live on Army installations.

"When Soldiers and Families know they're moving, they want to know about some key items of interest, namely education, housing, recreation and Family Member employment opportunities," Ni-colle said. "Because these items are important to them, they are important to us.

"This is what makes us a Community of Excellence - the dedication that we will be a home to our Soldiers and Families, rather than another stop in their Army experience," the commander said.

Fort Drum, which recently was named fourth-best military city to live in by military.com, submitted an ACOE packet that an independent panel of judges evaluated during a yearlong process. Judges looked at everything from customer care and leadership development to safety and energy efficiency.

To be competitive, leaders here used town hall meetings, civilian workforce briefings, community forums, electronic mediums and other mechanisms to receive feedback from their "customers" - Fort Drum's Soldiers, civilian employees, Family Members and North Country neighbors.

Workforce opinions, later collected through an anonymous survey sent out to roughly 650 people at Fort Drum, were a key factor in the judging.

"(Fort Drum seeks) to further develop the effectiveness of our programming and services, increase our customer satisfaction, and to ensure that our processes focus on our customers' needs," the 28-page packet stated. "We pride ourselves on being customer-centric."

The strategic plan alignment for each installation also was judged against the Installation Management Campaign Plan (IMCP) that Lynch rolled out last year.

Fort Drum also made history during last year's ACOE awards competition when it won a $75,000 prize under the exemplary practices category for transforming the way Soldiers in the field treat culturally sensitive locations and artifacts. This year marked the first time in roughly 10 years that Fort Drum submitted an ACOE packet competing at the installation level, said Sonja Draught, lead plans specialist for the Plans, Analysis and Integration Office.

"Many think of Fort Hood, (Texas), Fort Stewart, (Ga.), and those other big installations, overlooking Fort Drum," said Draught, who moved here from Germany almost two years ago with her husband, Master Sgt. Damon Draught, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Brigade Combat Team.

"That's why I'm so excited about this award," she said. "It puts much-deserved spotlight on Fort Drum and the people who work here.

"I was just very pleased that somebody else 'gets it,'" she added. "I was just so happy for that reason, that finally, someone else sees the good things that are happening here."

Draught, who heard negative things about Fort Drum before coming here, said she was stunned by the quality of the community and services she encountered at the northern New York post.

"When I first arrived, I got to see things from an outsider's perspective," she said. "I saw different processes and best practices being done here that were better than I had seen at any other installation."

Seeing so many positives, including Fort Drum's first-rate, in-processing procedures, Draught said her first undertaking was putting together an ACOE packet. She said the community as a whole knew it was great, but nobody outside the community knew, and so it needed to be articulated.

"I got together a workgroup of seasoned people around the garrison," she said. "They just threw information at me. There was just so much."

In three months time, Draught had a draft. Once the IMCP was released, the installation's strategic plan was tweaked and integrated with the IMCP, she said.

"A lot of times, people come to work, they do their job, but they do not know where they fit in at the higher level," Draught said. "It's important for people to feel like they are contributing and making a difference. If you do that, before you know it, positive attitudes begin to boil over.

That's when you start to have a winning organization that provides the best products and services.

"It's a trickle-down effect, but it does work," she added. "We really wanted to make a conscious effort to let people know where they fit into this whole big scheme."

Roughly 80 Army installations worldwide competed in this year's ACOE awards competition. Fort Drum was one of six garrisons to receive honors. The installation shares the silver with Fort Campbell, Ky.

Wiesbaden, Germany, won the gold, while the bronze award is shared by Fort Riley, Kan.; Fort Carson, Colo.; and Fort Hood, Texas.

Draught said the ACOE competition is all about developing better Army communities, including with neighbors outside the gates.

"Everybody is part of a team that is working together, even our partnerships off post," she said. "I've never been anyplace that has such a tight partnership with the cities and towns. It's amazing - it's priceless. They help us make Fort Drum successful."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16