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Walter Reed May Close After Nearly 100 Years

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

More now on the long and distinguished history of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The hospital was named for the Army doctor who figured out the cause of yellow fever. As NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports, it's taken care of veterans and the wounded going back to World War I.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO reporting:

There's been an Army hospital at Walter Reed for 96 years. The decision to close comes when Walter Reed is as busy as it's ever been. Doctors and staff have treated nearly 4,700 injured troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Walter Reed is known for its advanced work with amputees; there've been 265 from those wars. Most arrive within days of their injury. Many stay on the gated campus for months and months. Dr. John Pierce is a retired pediatrician who worked at Walter Reed for 15 years. He's now the historian for the Walter Reed Society, which supports the hospital.

Dr. JOHN PIERCE (Retired Pediatrician; Walter Reed Society): They're working very hard. I think they're providing good care for the soldiers and their families. It's the busiest it's been probably with combat casualties since Vietnam.

SHAPIRO: There are 72 buildings on the crowded Walter Reed campus. Some red-brick buildings are nearly a hundred years old; a few are just a couple years old. The main hospital in use now was built during the Vietnam War, and it needs to be renovated. That's why Walter Reed became a target for closure. The Walter Reed name will go on a new hospital that's supposed to be built on the grounds of the National Naval Medical Center several miles away in Bethesda, Maryland. Traditionally Walter Reed, an Army hospital, has been a rival of the Navy hospital. Both competed to be the hospital that treated presidents. Bethesda won that competition during the term of Jimmy Carter, who was a Navy man. Recently the two hospitals have worked together to care for injured soldiers and Marines from Iraq and Afghanistan. But Pierce, who is also the co-author of a biography of Dr. Walter Reed, worries that Army and Navy medicine won't mesh well in one single hospital.

Dr. PIERCE: The Army has had more interest in taking care of dependents of active-duty and retirees than the Navy has over the years. And they've had a better track record of taking care of all of the military beneficiaries, not just the active-duty. And with the name Walter Reed transferring to Bethesda, I don't think the Army culture's going to transfer over there. It's clearly going to be a Navy-run facility.

SHAPIRO: If, Pierce says, a new hospital gets built at all.

Dr. PIERCE: Quite honestly, there's no guarantee they'll even build a new facility at Bethesda. The country is broke, you know. Our deficit is growing every day.

SHAPIRO: Others are worried about the closure, too. Eleanor Holmes Norton is Washington's non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. She says the commission ignored one important reason to keep Walter Reed open: It could be used in case of a terrorist attack on the city.

Ms. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (Democrat, Washington, DC, Delegate): In the event of an attack, Walter Reed provided what no other hospital could: a bed surge capacity; decontamination and isolation facilities for chemical, radiological and biological agents; a helipad, the biggest one and the only one that could handle what would be needed in case of a mass attack. They just threw that away.

SHAPIRO: Norton and neighbors of the hospital said they would miss it as a neighbor, as an employer and the sounds of the bugle that float over nearby Georgia Avenue at the end of every day when soldiers from Walter Reed lower the American flag.

(Soundbite of bugle)

SHAPIRO: Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.
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