Walter Reed Medical Center closes in bittersweet ceremony Wednesday

Walter Reed will close in September.

(AP, ABC7) — Maj. Walter Reed's sword was symbolically handed over to the Navy at a ceremony Wednesday marking the closure of the Army hospital bearing his name, where hundreds of thousands of the nation's war wounded have been treated for more than a century.

The tone was somber at times, but mostly celebratory, as more than a thousand former and current staff members and patients — some of them wounded troops from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in wheelchairs who have lost limbs — gathered under a white tent to say goodbye to the Army's flagship hospital.

“The service here medically I think was outstanding,” said Private First Class Brian Dilberian of Brooklyn.

He lost two legs and an arm to a bomb in Afghanistan and has had ten surgeries since. He still needs another, for which he'll be transferred to Bethesda Naval.

“I would do this again. I would do this a million times more. I don't regret nothing,” he says. He says his recovery has been easy thanks to the staff at Walter Reed.

The Army band played, paratroopers jumped out of a plane, and flags representing various units on the hospital grounds were symbolically cased in black.

"We're here to support the troops … and to bid farewell to Walter Reed and hello Bethesda,” said Pat Simmons of the Doobie Brothers, who played at the ceremony.

The hospital opened in 1909 and has a storied history of care to military members, their families and presidents. President Dwight Eisenhower died there, as did Gens. John J. Pershing and Douglas MacArthur. But in 2007, that reputation was scarred by a scandal about substandard living conditions on its grounds for wounded troops in outpatient care that led to improvements in care for the wounded throughout the military. No mention was made at the ceremony about the scandal.

Instead, the innovation in prosthetics and care to the nation's war wounded at Walter Reed was honored. Most recently, more than 18,000 troops from the current wars have gone there for treatment.

Army Secretary John McHugh said Walter Reed has never been about bricks and mortar, but about "spirit and hope and compassion" that will continue after the hospital closed.

"These doors may close, the address may change, but the name, the legacy and most importantly the work and the healing will endure," McHugh said.

Two years before the scandal, a government commission charged with closing military bases to save money said facilities at Walter Reed needed to be modernized, and it voted to close Walter Reed. The main hospital in use today opened in 1977.

The State Department and the District of Columbia will take possession of the hospital grounds on Sept. 15.

The hospital's operations are being moved in August to new and upgraded facilities at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and at Fort Belvoir, Va. The price tag for the new facilities is $2.6 billion.

The hospital in Bethesda will be called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and it's because of that new relationship that Reed's sword was handed during the ceremony from Army Maj. Gen. Carla Hawley-Bowland to Navy Rear Adm. Matthew Nathan. Reed was an Army physician whose research proved that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquito.

"For many of the staff members, even though they know that this is the future of the military health system, in a way, it's still like losing your favorite uncle, and so there is a certain amount of mourning that is going on and it is an emotional time," said Col. Norvell Coots, commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System.

"Frankly, I will say it's with a heavy heart that Walter Reed closes. I don't know. I know that there was a process for that decision, but we've lost a great, important part of history," said Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the former president.

She recalled bringing to the hospital a birthday cake she had baked for her grandfather, who spent the last several months before his death in 1969 in a special suite where politicians and foreign leaders visited him.

There are countless pieces of history throughout the campus.

At the rose garden, some nurses from the Vietnam War era were said to have married their patients. The memorial chapel is where President Harry S. Truman went for his first church service after taking office, following a visit with Pershing, who lived in a suite at Walter Reed for several years, said John Pierce, historian for the Walter Reed Society.

A marker identifies the spot on the hospital grounds where, long before the hospital was built, Confederate sharpshooters fired near President Abraham Lincoln, leading an officer to call Lincoln a "damned fool" and order him to the ground, according a brochure produced by Walter Reed about its history.

President Calvin Coolidge's teenage son died in the hospital from an infected blister he received while playing tennis at the White House, Pierce said. A black and white photo from 1960 shows then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, a vice presidential candidate at the time, visiting the bedside of Vice President Richard Nixon, who was being treated for a staph infection.

Presidents now are sent to Bethesda for treatment because it's considered more secure, said Sanders Marble, senior historian with the Office of Medical History at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

The hospital was named to honor Maj. Walter Reed, an Army physician who treated troops and American Indians on the frontier. Among his medical achievements was life-saving research that proved that yellow fever was spread by mosquito. He died in 1902 at age 51 of complications related to appendicitis with a friend and colleague, Lt. Col. William C. Borden, treating him.

"I'm sure (Borden) felt very guilty about that, and over the course of the next several years, he campaigned to get money for a new hospital and of course, wanted to name it for his good friend Walter Reed," Pierce said.

The original redbrick hospital had about 80 beds, but inpatient capacity grew by the thousands during the wars of the last century. Today, it treats about 775,000 outpatients annually, and has an inpatient load of about 150. It wasn't just service members and military retirees treated at the hospital over the decades, but their families, too. Countless babies were born at the hospital into the 1990s.

Rehabilitation for the wounded, including care for amputees, has been an important part of the mission since it opened. The wounded commonly spend a year or longer at the hospital now, although they are more quickly moved to outpatient care.

Photos from World War I show troops at Walter Reed learning skills such as typing and knitting. During World War II, brochures distributed to the war amputees featured pictures of amputees smoking and shaving. The message was, "Your life isn't over, don't get down," Marble said.

Laura Lehigh's late husband, Michael Schmidt, was a lieutenant when he proposed to her during his stay at Walter Reed. He was recovering from a gunshot wound he received in Vietnam in 1968.

In letters to her, he described stinky bedpans, a "new inmate" moving into his ward, a "celebrity of the week" visit from "Tricky Dick Nixon," practical jokes played on student nurses, a champagne party for a triple amputee's 26th birthday, and how the orderlies turned patients' beds near a window around so they could watch Johnson enter the hospital to visit Eisenhower.

"Mike always had a wonderful sense of humor, but I think they kind of all aspired to have a sense of humor, those guys who had lost their limbs who didn't know what their lives were going to be like getting out. I think they had a camaraderie and a sense of humor and an optimism about themselves, if not about life in general," said Lehigh, 63, in a telephone interview from Kalamazoo, Mich.

Despite all the warm feelings, a Washington Post investigation in 2007 uncovered shoddy living conditions in an outpatient ward known as Building 18. Troops were living among black mold and mouse droppings while trying to fend for themselves as they battled a complex bureaucracy of paperwork related to the disability evaluation system.

The report drew scrutiny of all aspects of care offered to the nation's wounded. The scandal embarrassed the Army and the Bush administration, and led to the firings of some military leaders.

Afterward, some in Congress pushed for the Pentagon to change course and keep Walter Reed open, but an independent group reviewed the idea and recommended moving forward with Walter Reed's closure plans.

It concluded that the Defense Department was or should have been aware of the widespread problems but neglected them because they knew Walter Reed was scheduled to be closed. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates agreed, and said there was little wisdom in pouring money into Walter Reed to keep it open indefinitely.

"Far better to make an investment in brand-new, 21st-century facilities," Gates told reporters.

Pierce said the quality of medical care at Walter Reed didn't suffer, even leading up to the scandal.

"It was administrative issues and housing issues, and the housing issues were significant. I don't think anyone would want to say they weren't and it shouldn't have happened, but it was not a quality of care situation," Pierce said.

In addition to improved living conditions, one of the other upgrades after the scandal was the opening of an advanced rehabilitation center for troops with amputations. On a recent day, several amputees, including some who had lost three limbs, were exercising in the room, one even on a skateboard.

Marine Sgt. Rob Jones, 25, is a double amputee from the Afghanistan war who spends much of his days rowing. His goal is to become an FBI agent or make the U.S. Adaptive Rowing Team.

One of more than 440 troops from the recent wars getting outpatient care, he sat on a bench outside the center reading a book. His prosthetics were visible below his shorts.

"I'll probably just remember the people I was working with, the staff here, how much they helped me get back on my feet." Jones said.