FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md., Sept. 10, 2011 -- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta today pitched in alongside more than 300 military and civilian volunteers to build a new playground for children of military families here.
The Burba Park playground project is one of thousands of community service events taking place across the country this weekend in honor of the 9/11 National Day of Service and Remembrance -- a day set aside to honor the victims of 9/11 and those who rose in service in the tragedy's aftermath.
Giving back to others is a fitting way to honor the victims and the heroes of 9/11, the secretary said.
"This is what America is all about," he told a group of military and civilian volunteers gathered in the shade during a brief work break.
A decade ago, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, claimed nearly 3,000 military and civilian lives at the Pentagon and in New York and Pennsylvania. But rather than tear the nation apart, "out of that tragedy, this country has drawn tremendous inspiration, tremendous resilience and tremendous dedication," Panetta said. "First, to make sure what happened on 9/11 never happens again, but more importantly, to bring this country together."
Panetta, the son of Italian immigrants, said he often asked his parents what brought them to this country. They told him they came here to give their children a better life.
"That's what all of us want," the secretary said. "It's that dream that brings us all out here today to make sure that through our work and through our service and through our dedication, we make certain these kids have a better life in this country. If we can do that, we can fulfill the American dream, and we can make sure that future generations will look back and say thank you."
After thanking the volunteers for their service on the first sunny day here in weeks, Panetta, clad in jeans, went right to work. He helped to mix concrete, then hauled wheelbarrow loads of it to dump at the foot of a swing set. Around him, hundreds of volunteers also labored in the sun, shoveling mulch or piecing together red, white and blue sections of playground equipment.
The Burba Park playground, slated to be completed later today, will offer hundreds of children here a safe place to play, officials said, and will feature a spiral slide, swing set, monkey bars and a kid-size rock-climbing wall. The playground's design was based on drawings by children here who participated in a Design Day event.
The project was sponsored by KaBOOM!, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating spaces for children to play; the Fort Meade Community Covenant Council; and Northrup Grumman. The covenant council raised more than $14,000 in cash donations to fund the playground, officials said, and more than $6,000 in food donations for the volunteers.
Since its inception 15 years ago, KaBOOM! has led the construction of more than 2,000 playgrounds, but the playground here marks the group's first on a military installation, explained Kate Becker, the organization's vice president of programs. The organization wanted to honor military families, she added, particularly with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 at hand.
"When there's a tragedy that happens in our world, we want to commemorate it, pause for a moment and think of everything that happened around that day," she said. "You can do something quietly or you can do something like this.
"At the end of the day," she continued, "you have a legacy that's going to be left behind. For 15 or 20 years kids are going to be able to play on this playground that the volunteers built today."
The volunteers were a mix of military and family members from Fort Meade, and civilians from KaBOOM! and Northrup Grumman.
As she hauled mulch over to the playground from a giant pile, Sgt. Amber Lengele said she was happy to give back to her community. She has 10 siblings, and six have joined the service, she said. "We were raised to give back," she added.
Fellow volunteer Sgt. Kevin Martin said it meant a lot to give back in honor of 9/11. He had felt driven to join the military after the terrorist attacks, but decided to finish out college instead. He became a high school English teacher, but his urge to serve remained. In 2008, he left teaching in the middle of the school year and enlisted.
"I needed to do it," he said. "I left teaching to come and fight."
Second Lt. Jared Blair, 55th Signal Company, Combat Camera, said his platoon volunteered to serve the community, but also to honor the victims of 9/11.
The attacks took place a decade ago, he noted, but "it's still very relevant to what we're doing today."
"We're still at war. Soldiers are still getting deployed. This definitely shows we're still thinking about it and thinking about the families who suffered from the attacks," he said.