FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- A former 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldier was recently recognized by the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield for his cultural property protection efforts and leadership in the Army.

Brig. Gen. Erik Peterson, commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command, received the Meritorious Military Service in Protection of Cultural Property Award during a ceremony last month at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Peterson is the award's inaugural recipient.

"I am very sincerely humbled and honored to be here today and a bit overwhelmed at being recognized by such an august group," Peterson told the crowd.

The USCBS, the cultural equivalent of the American Red Cross, created the award to single out members of the U.S. armed forces who demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the critical role of cultural property and who have implemented cultural property protection protocols during the planning and execution of military missions.

Nearly 200 distinguished guests attended the ceremony, which also marked the 60th anniversary of an international treaty called the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

The event's keynote address was delivered by Harry Ettlinger, one of the original "Monuments Men" tasked during World War II to help save art looted by the Nazis. Irina Bokova, current director-general of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), also spoke during the ceremony.

Dr. Laurie Rush, Fort Drum's cultural resources manager who works extensively with Peterson, said the general is most likely the highest-ranking military officer ever recognized for cultural property protection accomplishments in a combat environment.

"Plus, I think you could count on one hand the number of military personnel recognized by any outside organization for saving cultural property during the course of modern conflict," she said.

Peterson served as 10th Combat Aviation Brigade commander at Fort Drum before becoming the division chief of staff here in 2009. Rush said then-Col. Peterson showed immense interest in the Cultural Resources Program on post and even incorporated Afghan heritage training into senior leader development ahead of the division's headquarters' deployment into southern Afghanistan in 2011.

"We did a practice lunch in a replica Afghan house at the Mission Training Complex," Rush recalled. "He also made sure that I had an opportunity to brief the entire command group before they deployed."

Peterson initially asked Rush to deploy with the division as a subject-matter expert. Rush said Peterson insisted that she did not come along, however, after learning that she had been awarded a prestigious fellowship at the American Academy in Rome.

Before leaving Fort Drum to become deputy commanding general at the U.S. Army Cadet Command, Peterson discussed with Rush how they might teach the value of cultural property to Reserve Officers' Training Corps cadets. As a result of their teamwork, an ROTC Cultural Property Internship Program was established at Fort Drum last year.

"No question," Rush said, "Brig. Gen. Peterson has had an amazing influence on our Cultural Resources Program."

During his speech, Peterson said that as a professional Soldier, he is a student of history, geography and culture. As an "empathetic human being," he added, he also appreciates art, religion, traditions and the rich diversity of the world's peoples.

"My profession has afforded the opportunity to travel widely, mostly to the troubled places, to see and experience much of this -- at times, to witness the very best and the very worst of humanity -- and to earn a sincere appreciation for your noble efforts," the general told the crowd.

He said training service members in the protection of cultural property helps "Soldiers and their leaders become aware, respectful of, and actively protect irreplaceable cultural treasures."

"These efforts are not only morally right in the eyes of the international community and enlightened people and compliant with law and policy, but they are practical and effective militarily," he said. "They contribute directly to stabilization, unity, conflict termination and post-conflict resolution."

Rush said international news headlines demonstrating deliberate attacks on everything from museums and tombs to churches and libraries illustrate the serious need for cultural training in the military.

"It is critical that our Soldiers continue to receive the kinds of outstanding training opportunities currently offered at Fort Drum so that it is clear to all citizens of host nations that we are not the type of force that would ever attack a sacred place without provocation," she said.