Amid blustery winds and driving rain, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta toured the 9/11 memorial in New York on Tuesday, five days ahead of its formal dedication.
Panetta peered into the 30-foot waterfalls that mark the footprints of the World Trade Center towers that were felled in the terrorist attacks. The Pentagon chief then paused by a Callery pear tree that was pulled from the rubble in the days after the attack. The tree was brought to a nursery in the Bronx, and in late 2010 replanted on the memorial site.
Panetta is the first cabinet-level official from the Obama administration to visit the completed memorial; his low-key, rain-sodden visit kicked off a week that will likely be dominated by events marking the 10th anniversary of the attacks on New York and at the Pentagon. On Sunday, President Obama and the first lady will attend a ceremony dedicating the memorial.
Panetta made the New York trip with five service members who joined the military after the Sept. 11 attacks and have served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti. In recent weeks the Obama administration has begun to refer to Americans who joined the military in the months after the attacks as the “9/11 generation,” a moniker that is intended to echo World War II’s “greatest generation.”
The secretary hoped to use the trip to stress the importance of service, especially military service, and to give recognition to the “generation that stepped forward” in the wake of the attacks, said a senior defense official.
Panetta spent about 30 minutes touring the memorial with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. As he and the mayor gazed out at the waterfalls from underneath umbrellas, heavy wind whipped the water, which spills downward into pools of black granite.
Panetta had also planned to visit the Shanksville, Pa., memorial honoring those killed aboard United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11. But the high winds prevented his V-22 Osprey aircraft from landing at the airport near the Pennsylvania memorial.
The defense secretary rarely uses the costly V-22s for domestic travel. The aircraft, which take off like a helicopter, fly like a plane and can travel farther and faster than other military helicopter, have been put into heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan.
On Tuesday afternoon, the V-22 ferried Panetta from Dover Air Force base, where he spent Monday night, to a helicopter pad in the Wall Street district. Panetta had spent the night at Dover because his flight from California could not land in Washington. The defense secretary spends many weekends at his home in California’s Carmel Valley.