FORT DRUM, N.Y. - Fort Drum garrison made history last week, winning its first Army Communities of Excellence award under the category of exemplary practices for transforming the way Soldiers in the field treat culturally sensitive places, such as ruins, sacred and historic places, and archaeological sites.

Officials here were overjoyed by news of the prestigious honor, which was presented to Col. Kenneth Riddle, Fort Drum garrison commander, and Dr. Laurie Rush of the post's Cultural Resources Program during the 2010 Army Communities of Excellence awards ceremony held May 4 in Washington.

"I was so incredibly proud to accept this award, along with Dr. Rush, on behalf of our cultural resources team and our garrison," Riddle said.

"Standing up there with the Army chief of staff and the Installation Management commanding general," he added, "I was reminded that we may be the Army's best kept secret, but there is nothing covert about our success in taking care of Soldiers, Families, civilians and our environment."

Of 179 Army installations worldwide, Fort Drum was one of six garrisons singled out to receive the ACOE Exemplary Practice Award, which recognized installations for advances this year in logistics, aviation, occupational health and other areas.

Fort Drum was the only one to win an ACOE award for an environmental program.

Six other posts won top honors in the ACOE's gold, silver and bronze categories. A special category recognized two communities of excellence for installations managed by Army National Guard and Reserve units.

Helping to present the awards at the Pentagon were Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch, IMCOM commanding general, and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., U.S. Army chief of staff.

Rush, an archaeologist and Fort Drum's cultural resources manager, said the greatest moment at the awards ceremony came in seeing the installation's leader receive an ACOE award.

"It's an incredible honor to shake hands with Gen. Casey and Lt. Gen. Lynch," Rush said. "But the best part of it for me was to see what it meant to the garrison commander. That was the greatest reward.

"Col. Riddle was extremely gracious with me," added Rush, regarding her efforts. "But it wasn't (just me); it was the entire team. This is just the opposite of something you could ever do by yourself."

For more than 25 years, the services, facilities and environments of Army posts worldwide have been recognized by the ACOE, a program sponsored by the offices of the Army's chief of staff and the assistant chief of staff for installation management.

Army judges evaluate applicants during a yearlong process, using various standards, including the highly competitive Malcolm Baldrige National Quality criteria.

In addition to a trophy and a flag streamer, Fort Drum's garrison command received a $75,000 monetary prize.

Also in Washington to help accept the award for Fort Drum were Garrison Command Sgt. Maj. John McNeirney, and James Corriveau, director of Fort Drum Public Works, which oversees the Cultural Resources Program.

"Our cultural resources management team has earned appropriate recognition for their innovation and excellence throughout many venues over these past several years," Corriveau said. "However, bringing home the installation's very first ACOE Exemplary Practice Award is particularly exciting as the garrison looks forward to next year's ACOE competitions."

The small staff that helped Fort Drum win the award consists of Rush; Mag Schulz, a survey team coordinator from Colorado State University; and archaeologist Duane Quates, a recent addition to the team.

Just last week, Rush said Quates discovered satellite images on Twitter of the largest beaver dam on Earth, which could help them build models for ecological reconstruction that help predict the locations of archaeological sites.

"So," Rush mused, "beaver dam reconstruction is one of our latest ideas."

Rush's department also works with nine contractors from CSU who are a part of Fort Drum's Land Rehabilitation and Maintenance, a program of the Integrated Training Area Management.

ITAM is administered by the Directorate of Plans, Training, Mobilization and Security, which seeks to make Fort Drum a more sustainable installation by developing and reconfiguring training areas.

"I know Laurie doesn't like us saying this, but we have a 'they're-the-brains-we're-the-brawn' type of partnership here," said Ian Warden, LRAM coordinator at Fort Drum, whose team of heavy equipment operators build mock archaeological sites, cemeteries and other structures.

Rush said without her hard-working contractors and the collaboration of Fort Drum directorates, none of the successes of the Cultural Resources Program would have been achievable.

"The Army Communities of Excellence is about developing better Army communities, and teamwork is such an important part of that," Rush said. "One reason I think we were selected was we've tried to be a model for the Army in terms of working together across the directorates."

Rush also said a key player in assessing her work and helping to submit Fort Drum's application for ACOE judging was Jim Garrett, business transformation team leader for the Office of Plans, Analysis and Integration.

Garrett said he was confident Rush's program was first-rate and deserving of recognition, but because it was the first time in a while that Fort Drum had competed in an ACOE program, he knew it would take the hard work of multiple directorates to meet the criteria.

"I was concerned about ensuring we properly described and presented (the) documentation," Garrett said. "(But) it was a great team effort."

Rush took over Fort Drum's Cultural Resource Program in 2001. Since then, her directorate has won nearly a dozen Army- and DoD-level awards.

Her team uses archaeology to educate Soldiers on the importance of preserving sacred and historical sites, both on Fort Drum, where many Native American ancestral places have been discovered, and overseas, in Middle Eastern theaters of war.

She won significant attention a couple of years ago for creating more than 150,000 decks of Heritage Resource Preservation pictured playing cards, disseminated to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, to increase Soldiers' cultural awareness by helping units identify and protect ancient artifacts and archaeological sites encountered in the field.

Quates, who joined Rush's staff late last year, said he feels "really lucky" to be working for an award-winning organization whose leader's distinguished reputation is known throughout the industry.

"Everybody I've talked to at DoD conferences ... tells me Dr. Rush is an oddball when it comes to cultural resource managers in the Army," Quates said. "That's a compliment. She's out there, by herself, doing great things."

The "great things" Rush does, she's the first to admit, come from trial and error, and working in an environment she strives to create in which her colleagues feel free to fail.

"Some of the most exciting days are when we find out we were wrong," Rush said of her philosophy in life. "That's because it means we've learned something."

As an example, Rush cited a Middle Eastern-style cemetery her team built in a Fort Drum training area.

She said when a Fort Drum unit, which fought in Afghanistan, encountered the replica graveyard, Soldiers grabbed the headstones and used them as roadblocks, because they did not resemble an Afghan cemetery.

"So we sat down and (realized) our replica cemetery wasn't working like we expected," Rush said. "Clearly, if our Soldiers aren't recognizing it - our very experienced, multi-deployment Soldiers - then we've made a mistake."

With her growing collection of awards and honors, including a prestigious yearlong fellowship to the American Academy in Rome beginning in September, Rush said it's "a little embarrassing" to be repeatedly acknowledged.

"It has been a pretty remarkable spring for awards," she said. "But it's been a real honor to have this opportunity to work with the garrison and, in this case, (to be honored) with a different type of award.

"Cultural resources bring this sense of place," she continued. "We also are the repository of the history of Fort Drum as a community. I like to think that we will contribute in a significant way to telling the story of how our community came to be."