Panel Votes to Close Historic Army Medical Center

The Base Closure and Realignment Commission continued Thursday to issue recommendations about closing military bases around the country. Among those bases flagged for closure is the historic Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Alex Chadwick talks with Gordon Trowbridge, a reporter for the Army Times, about the panel's decisions and their potential impact on the military.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

More news today from the federal commission deciding the fate of several military installations around the country, many of them really. The federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission--it's known as BRAC--voted to close the historic Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Still on the docket today is South Dakota's Ellsworth Air Force Base, where the B-1 bombers are based. Yesterday, BRAC overrode the Pentagon's recommendations to close a Connecticut submarine base and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine among others. Joining us Gordon Trowbridge. He's a reporter with the Army Times.

Gordon, welcome to DAY TO DAY.

And BRAC sided with the Pentagon in voting to close Walter Reed. Why is that?

Mr. GORDON TROWBRIDGE (Army Times): The commissioners felt that after more than a century of serving the military's needs fairly well that Walter Reed is simply an outdated facility, that returning troops who have been wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan or in other conflicts will get better care if the military is able to follow through on a plan to build a brand-new medical center not far away from Walter Reed on the campus of the Bethesda Naval Medical Center. They just felt that that was what was going to be, in the long run, better for the troops.

CHADWICK: These are difficult decisions. I mean, that's an old, historic facility that Pentagon people have used for generations. But the commission members have bucked the Pentagon's recommendations in a couple of ways. And what does that mean?

Mr. TROWBRIDGE: Well, I think, first of all, as the chairman of the commission, Anthony Principi, said today that they certainly do not see themselves as a rubber stamp for the Pentagon's recommendations. And in a number of these cases, the Pentagon made its case, communities made their case and the commission simply felt that communities were more persuasive. In the case of submarine base in New London, not only folks in the Groton, Connecticut, area and the Connecticut congressional delegation but members of the submarine community, retired admirals, even former President Carter wrote the commission and said, `If you close this base, you will take the heart out of the naval submarine community,' and the commission found that persuasive.

CHADWICK: Well, what about Pentagon officials?

Mr. TROWBRIDGE: The real question here that--the trend that you're seeing in those major recommendations that have been rejected is a couple of things. First of all, there is a great deal of skepticism on the commission about the Pentagon's estimates as to how much money these closings would save. That's something you mentioned elsewhere a second ago. When we do get to Ellsworth, that's going to be a major consideration there. It was a major consideration on New London. The commission and the Government Accountability Office felt the Pentagon was just way off on its savings estimates. And when you take those savings away, the case for closing these bases becomes much less compelling.

CHADWICK: Yeah, the whole rationale. Let me ask you about Ellsworth. I mean, you have to put the B-1 bombers somewhere, right? And these can't be easy planes to service and take care of.

Mr. TROWBRIDGE: Exactly. What you're seeing there, and with a lot of the other Air Force recommendations, is a function of the fact that the Air Force is shrinking its aircraft fleet pretty dramatically over the next few years. Already, the Pentagon has, in previous years, shrunk its B-1 bomber force from about 90-some planes to a little more than 60, which is a number that the Air Force feels it can safely accommodate on one base; that's Dyess Air Force Base in Texas.

You get a lot of arguments. Again, retired Air Force officers have gotten involved in this, saying that that presents not only operational challenges but security challenges. Do you want to put all of the B-1 force in one place where it might be more vulnerable? But the Pentagon feels that it needs again the money savings that it would get from consolidating overhead for the very expensive maintenance on a plane like the B-1.

CHADWICK: I said earlier that they're going to decide Ellsworth today. Maybe they're not going to decide Ellsworth today.

Mr. TROWBRIDGE: Maybe not. The staff just gave us a list of the order in which they believe that the Air Force recommendations to be addressed today will be taken, and Ellsworth at this point is not on that list. The two big Air Force controversies are Ellsworth and the Air National Guard issue. Those are both things that the staff is still working its way through on, and I expect that we won't see those things necessarily until tomorrow. That's pretty up in the air. That could change at a moment's notice, but that looks like the plan right now.

CHADWICK: Gordon Trowbridge, reporter with the Army Times at the BRAC commission that's deciding the future of military bases in this country.

Gordon, thank you.

Mr. TROWBRIDGE: Thank you.

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