WASHINGTON - For nearly a century, Walter Reed Army hospital has been a sanctuary for soldiers returning from battle, but yesterday the nation's flagship military hospital was itself the target as the Pentagon proposed closing its doors.
The medical center would be relocated from its home in Northwest Washington to a new facility in the Maryland suburbs.
More than its medical implications for veterans, the move's greatest power might be emotional, ending the story of a sprawling campus where soldiers have struggled, leaders have died and the nation has gone to heal its wounds.
FOR THE RECORD - An article on May 14 about the possible relocation of Walter Reed Army hospital stated that the National Museum of Health and Medicine may remain on the hospital's Washington, D.C., campus. In fact, the Pentagon has not specified a future location for the museum, and the collection could be moved to Bethesda with other hospital facilities.
The Sun regrets the errors.
When a military installation closes, jobs aren't always lost. But history sometimes is. Hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers have been treated at Walter Reed, as have U.S. presidents and world leaders. Its role continues today, as soldiers who lost limbs and sustained other injuries in the Iraq war are rehabilitated behind its iron gate.
"A lot of luminaries in our national history are looked after in that institution," said Janet Southby, a retired Army colonel who spent much of her career at Walter Reed, retiring in 1996 as its chief nurse. "There's a lot of sentimental associations with the physical place."
If Congress accepts the Defense Department recommendation, Walter Reed's services would be relocated to a new facility on the grounds of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. The new "Walter Reed National Military Medical Center," along with another proposed hospital at Fort Belvoir, Va., would cost $1 billion to construct. The complex in Bethesda would include 300 more inpatient beds, clinical training and research space.
"It will be the centerpiece of military health care: clinical practice, education and research," said Lt. Gen. George Peach Taylor Jr., the Air Force surgeon general. "It will rival Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins and the other great medical institutions of the world."
Valuable real estate
The move would also open up valuable D.C. real estate to potential use by the federal government. The hospital complex, with its Georgian architecture on 113 acres, is a mini-city with red-brick buildings and more than 1,000 trees along wide roads and winding paths.
The proposal - part of a broader series of closures and realignments proposed by the Defense Department to save money by consolidating resources - took some veterans by surprise yesterday. After all, they said, the landmark hospital has a museum-like quality - the suites where Gen. John J. Pershing and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower died are preserved as they were at the time of their occupants' deaths.
"It just seems so strange to me that something that's such an institution like Walter Reed would be singled out," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales Jr., a former commandant of the Army War College who, as a Vietnam veteran, continues to visit Walter Reed for medical care.
Veterans have arrived at Walter Reed for decades; wartime wounded have received care there for every conflict since World War I. Most recently, Ward 57 has gotten the attention. It's where soldiers who have lost limbs in Iraq are rehabilitated.
The Army's largest hospital is so firmly implanted in popular life that it even played a recurring role in the comic strip Doonesbury, whose creator, Garry Trudeau, visited amputees there to do research for his character B.D., who lost a leg in a grenade attack in Iraq.
The hospital campus also is a repository of military history. On its grounds is the National Museum of Health and Medicine, an oddball military-medical collection holding the remains of a one-eyed baby, six fragments of Abraham Lincoln's skull and James Garfield's spine. The collection also holds the fractured leg bone of Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, a Union commander in the Civil War who donated his amputated limb and, according to lore, returned to visit it in its glass case.
The museum is one of the only vestiges of Walter Reed that would stay put under the proposal. An auxiliary campus that houses the Walter Reed Institute of Army Research, the Defense Department's largest biomedical research lab, would not be affected by the plan.
Some welcome change
Some who have worked at Walter Reed have complained about the hospital's aging infrastructure and cramped administrative confines. They say the closing is overdue and are eager to see an upgrade at a proposed state-of-the-art facility on the Bethesda campus.
"It's such an exciting place, but it is very close quarters. ... It has got 5,000 people there," said Peter Esker, a former Walter Reed spokesman and a member of the Walter Reed Society, a nonprofit group of 450 former staffers devoted to preserving the institution's name and history. "It has severe parking problems, and the piping and the electricity require constant maintenance."
Still, Esker had to reminisce about the place where he spent 20 years of his career.