The medical center would be relocated from its home in Northwest Washington to a new facility in the Maryland suburbs.
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."
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.
"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.
"It's the most well-known military medical facility in the world," he said. "When I was there, we used to get letters addressed from foreign countries. All it said on the front was 'Walter Reed.' No address, no city, but it is so well known, it would always get there."
The hospital released a statement yesterday saying its leadership was notified yesterday morning of the proposal shortly after the Defense Department informed members of Congress. Army Maj. Gen. Kenneth L. Farmer Jr., Walter Reed's commanding general, said the hospital had participated in discussions with the Pentagon about the site's future and added that patient care would not be affected by a move.
In his statement, Farmer did not address details of the proposal, which shifts 5,600 military and civilian jobs from Walter Reed.
The military hospital was founded in 1909, eight years after the death of Army Medical Corps physician Walter Reed, whose research advanced the understanding of the spread of yellow fever and typhoid. In the decades since, world leaders such as Winston Churchill, King Hussein of Jordan and the former Shah of Iran have passed through its doors - the latter two receiving serious medical care while they were there.
While the medical center directs some research, the heart of the mission always has been the soldiers. With the slogan "We Provide Warrior Care," the medical center offers hospital care to active-duty and retired military personnel.
Southby, the former nurse, said she believes Walter Reed will weather the changes and become an even stronger medical institution. As president of the Walter Reed Society, she said she did not receive a flood of angry phone calls from alumni yesterday.
For some, the best parts of Walter Reed closed long ago - like the officer's club, which bustled at cocktail hour - but the campus still exerts an emotional pull for those who once called it home. Southby loves the penguin sculptures at the central fountain the best. "The old penguin fountain is near and dear to my heart," said the 30-year Army veteran. "I cared for a lot of patients who could see them right out their window."