Planned Closure of Army's Walter Reed a Hot Topic in Washington

We take a nostalgic look at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. The hospital has served everyone from presidents to wounded soldiers. The Pentagon has recommended its closure, moving most of its operations to Bethesda Naval Medical Center.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

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The end could be near for a famous military hospital. The Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, is on the Pentagon's list of facilities it would like to close. Hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women have been treated at Walter Reed since it opened in 1909. Lisa Nurnberger of member station WAMU has a look back at the hospital's history.

LISA NURNBERGER reporting:

Legions of men and, more recently, women have passed through the doors of the military's flagship hospital and been treated for all sorts of battle wounds and virtually all the major maladies of war, like influenza, tuberculosis and malaria. The troops' family members would come to visit. Not knowing what they'd find, they'd enter through this foyer.

Mr. PETER ESKER (Secretary, Walter Reed Society): To me, in many ways, it looks like the lobby of a very genteel, somewhat dowdy English hotel.

NURNBERGER: Peter Esker is the secretary of the Walter Reed Society, a non-profit formed to help troops and their families.

Mr. ESKER: It has Oriental carpets on the floors, English club leather furniture, General MacArthur's desk over there, which looks big enough to land an airplane on.

NURNBERGER: Walter Reed opened with 10 patients and 50 to 60 staff members to take care of them. Esker says it was pretty quiet up until World War I.

Mr. ESKER: It went immediately from, you know, 80 or a hundred patients to 2,500. That's when Walter Reed began to get its just deserved reputation for dealing with the many ravages of war: amputations, blast injuries, burns. They began to see them all here.

NURNBERGER: The hospital's population swelled again during World War II.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Unidentified Man: At Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, DC, are many wounded veterans who served proudly under his leadership.

NURNBERGER: This Armed Forces Radio broadcast was a tribute to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and included Michael Ruggiero, a patient at Walter Reed.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. MICHAEL RUGGIERO (Veteran): I'm 20 years old and have been on 32 bomber missions over Germany. That's where I lost my leg. I was a rear gunner in the Liberator. Whenever we went on a mission, we counted on our pilots...

NURNBERGER: In 1947, the hospital was still full of wounded soldiers when Lois Hessler started working as a secretary. Now 77, Hessler lives in a retirement community in a Washington suburb. She says the likes of Bob Hope and Pearl Bailey performed at Walter Reed to keep the soldiers' spirits up.

Ms. LOIS HESSLER (Former Secretary, Walter Reed Army Medical Center): And it was a great entertainment for them, and it was kind sad to see all those guys in wheelchairs and, you know, one injury after another.

NURNBERGER: But she says she enjoyed working at Walter Reed during a time when the hospital had a warm relationship with the surrounding community.

Ms. HESSLER: A lot of the soldiers went into town, you know, 'cause Silver Spring was not that large. And they went into Silver Spring and met the girls there, and they had dances at the armory.

NURNBERGER: Walter Reed's patient population increased again with the Korean and Vietnam wars. Since Operation Iraqi Freedom began, the hospital has treated more than 4,000 troops. These days neighbors say the main connection between the hospital and local residents is a dispute over traffic. While the District's mayor and delegate in Congress are fighting to keep the hospital in Washington, DC Councilman Adrian Fenty, who represents the area, says the move may be for the best.

Mr. ADRIAN FENTY (Councilman, Washington, DC): There are a lot of residents who are saying the city should let it go. And there aren't many people who are saying, `Let's fight to keep it open.' I think that the site that Walter Reed is on represents an enormous opportunity for the District of Columbia to foster some very positive development in that area.

NURNBERGER: Fenty says he'd like to see the campus filled with homes, retail space and parks. Former Walter Reed hospital employee Lois Hessler says regardless of whether the closure would benefit the city, she'd hate to see the hospital go.

Ms. HESSLER: It's an institution that's been around for a long time, and I just--maybe I'm old-fashioned. I don't know. And I just hate to see things change like that.

NURNBERGER: It'll be many months before Hessler and others know whether the Pentagon's recommendation to close Walter Reed is approved. The proposal calls for building a new state-of-the-art hospital on the National Naval Medical Center campus just outside of DC in Bethesda, Maryland. Defense officials say the move would save money. For NPR News, I'm Lisa Nurnberger in Washington.

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