WASHINGTON, June 22, 2009 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today commended the work of the volunteers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here, saying they set the example for the rest of the country.

Gates met with wounded soldiers and volunteers, using the occasion to help kick off President Barack Obama's "United We Serve" summer campaign aimed at boosting volunteerism and community service.

"You already have answered that call and answered it resolutely," Gates told the group of volunteers, hospital staff and soldiers gathered. "Your work plays a vital role in uplifting spirits and easing the burdens on the families of our wounded."

Fittingly, Gates made his remarks standing on bricks laid in place by volunteers who raised $300,000 for a new patio at the Mologne House, a place for soldiers and families to live during their recovery at the hospital.

Two years ago the spot was only dirt with a few older grills scattered about. Dirt paths led from the house to the hospital. Now a 10,000-square-foot, professionally designed brick and concrete patio with grills, handicap-accessible paths and a gazebo stands in its place.

About 1,500 volunteers are at the hospital, part of more than 560 organizations that pitch in to help with the needs of staff, soldiers and families there. Already they have logged nearly 27,000 hours volunteering this year.

Gates told the group that he could not fully express his appreciation for their efforts within the few words he was limited to in his speech.

"Your work here is invaluable ...," the secretary said. "For those whose lives you've touched, every gesture, no matter how small, has a tangible impact."

Army Col. (Dr.) Norvell V. Coots, commander of Walter Reed Health Care System, said that volunteers pick up the tasks that the staff simply does not have time for. Volunteer duties range from answering phones to spending time with the soldiers and families and taking them to appointments.

Soldiers are transported to Walter Reed often within a few days of being injured. They have few clothes and none of the comforts of home. These are all provided by volunteers at the hospital, Coots said.

If there were no volunteers, "that would leave us scrambling to make up the difference. Because they really do a tremendous amount of work," Coots said. "A lot of the things that they do would be impossible for us to do simply because of the manpower and time constraints that we have in the hospital."

Cynthia Rome, the director of Army Community Service at Walter Reed, said the hospital has always had a strong volunteer base. Some have volunteered for more than 30 years. Several of those who man the information booth have logged in more than 20 years each.

But in the past three years the volunteer program there has flourished. Now she has two full-time staff whose job it is to organize the program and find jobs for the volunteers. Commanders there want anyone who volunteers to find meaningful work.

The average volunteer spends only about four hours a week on the grounds, but some spend as much as 40, Rome said.

Some volunteer only for specific functions or special events, others pick up trash or plant flowers, and some volunteer to host regular dinners for wounded soldiers and their families. It is all aimed at making them feel at home while some spend as long as a year there recovering.

Deno Reed, an 81-year-old retired medical scientist and World War II veteran, volunteers one day a week in the physical therapy department. Mostly he helps the therapists and just talks and listens to the soldiers, he said.

"The value is to me, not to the others. I'm doing a service to people who have placed their lives on the line, and they're providing a major service for all of us," Reed said.

Grace Park, a college student, is also a volunteer, although more than 60 years Reed's junior. Park spends a lot of her time checking out videos to the troops. But she also said a lot of what she does is just hanging out and talking with the troops. Being younger, Park said, she fits in with the younger population of troops.

They talk about anything, she said, including politics, movies and sports.

Park largely discounts her efforts, and plans to make volunteering a life-long venture.

"Why wouldn't we volunteer' These wounded warriors did so much for us and we just come in ... six hours a week to rent out videos. It's such a small service compared to what they do for us. It's just our way to ... give a helping hand," Park said.

Gates told the group that it takes a "special kind of person" to devote time to make troops' lives better.

In fact, Gates admitted that after taking the job as defense secretary, he was somewhat unsure how he would handle visiting wounded troops.

"I wasn't sure I could keep it together," Gates said.

But people kept telling him that the troops would inspire him -- "lift him up."

"They did, and they do," Gates said. "Their grit, and resilience, indomitable spirit amaze me and inspire me every time."

Gates reiterated his stand that, other than winning the two current wars, caring for the wounded is his greatest priority. And, he said, those who volunteer are stepping up.

"At the heart of the volunteer force is a contract between the United States of America and the men and women who serve our military. A contract that is simultaneously legal, social and sacred. That when young Americans step forward of their own free will to serve they do so with the expectation that they and their families will be properly cared for should something happen on the battlefield," Gates said.

"As Americans we owe them so much and, as only Americans can do, I believe that our citizens, you, have risen to the occasion," he said.