History has marched through the halls of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where presidents, princes, kings and generals mingled in their hospital gowns, according to a story in the New York Times.
Lyndon B. Johnson visited an ill, pajama-clad Richard M. Nixon during the 1960 campaign. President Harry S. Truman went to his first church service here after taking office. President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the bill that established the Interstate highway system in 1956, while a patient here, according to John Pierce, a retired Army colonel and an expert on the history of the hospital. Eisenhower later spent the last 11 months of his life in the presidential suite, as his health declined, his wife, Mamie, living in a small room nearby.
So Walter Reed’s closing — scheduled for the end of August when the keys to its stately brick buildings will be given to the State Department and the District of Columbia — drew an emotional response from many gathered Wednesday to commemorate the occasion. Flags were folded and put away. Songs were sung. A sword was handed down, to symbolize the transition.
“These doors may close, the address may change, but the name, the legacy and, most important, the work and healing will endure,” said John M. McHugh, secretary of the Army, in a speech at the ceremony.
It was the end of an era for Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the principal hospital for soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, which next month will be moved to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and to a new facility in Fort Belvoir, Va.
The hospital’s patients will be moved in ambulances one by one, and outpatients, currently about 430, many of whom live in housing in the Walter Reed complex, will be moved in cars and moving vans over two weekends in August.
Maj. Gen. Carla G. Hawley-Bowland, commander of the Army’s Northern Regional Medical Command, to which Walter Reed belongs, said the move was intended to reduce the number of facilities — three in the Washington area, including Walter Reed — in order to better fit the military’s needs. Treatment has improved significantly in the past two decades and today requires less inpatient care, and more outpatient capacity, something the new medical centers will have, the general said.
The center’s reputation took a hit in 2007, when The Washington Post published a series of articles exposing poor living conditions and excessive bureaucracy for soldiers at the hospital. In response, officials established a unit designed to assist troops in every stage of the recovery process.
Its medical care is among the best in the country, particularly in the area of prosthesis, which have improved significantly since the Persian Gulf war in 1991. General Hawley-Bowland said soldiers now had prosthetic arms that allow them to do push-ups and hold rifles, innovations that did not exist for patients in the past.