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Community Fears Loss Of a D.C. Institution

By Susan Levine and Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 14, 2005

For almost a century, wounded combatants have arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the campus of rose-brick buildings serving as a haven from the horrors of war. It has been the hospital for those who lead and those who follow and, most recently, nearly 1,200 troops from the front lines in Iraq.

Yesterday, the hospital where President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gen. Douglas MacArthur spent their final days was declared expendable by the Pentagon and targeted for closure. Despite its iconic status, it could not measure up in location, accessibility and research and expansion potential. If the recommendation is accepted, 5,630 positions will be redeployed, with the future of the 113-acre Northwest campus, bounded by Rock Creek Park and Georgia Avenue, still to be determined.

The prime beneficiaries of Walter Reed's demise would be Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, where a large community hospital focusing on primary and specialty care would be built, and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, which would become the military's new "world-class flagship facility," a joint research, training and teaching locus.

Walter Reed's revered namesake, an Army physician who tackled typhoid and yellow fever during the late 1800s, would remain prominent. The Pentagon proposes renaming the Bethesda complex the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

"It will bring together the very best for all military medicine," said William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

The announcement stunned many of the hospital's neighbors, who talked of how Walter Reed's presence is woven into the fabric of their lives. It is the landmark they use when giving visitors directions to their homes, the place that draws the presidential motorcade when the commander-in-chief pays a visit.

"I just can't imagine Walter Reed not being on Georgia Avenue," said Tonya Taylor, who lives and works a few blocks away. "It's just part of D.C."

In the last two years, residents have grown accustomed to the sight of recuperating troops, in wheelchairs or on crutches, being escorted by loved ones around the grounds. Arletha McPherson, who will turn 60 next week, knows when an injured soldier is being flown in or out because the helicopter roars right over her roof. Evenings, she likes to sit on her front porch to hear taps as the American flag is hoisted down.

"We would be lost without it," said McPherson, whose rowhouse sits directly across from the hospital's front door. "I wouldn't want them to put anything else there."

In a broader sense, Walter Reed is also woven into the fabric of the country. Founded in 1909, it expanded quickly from 80 beds to 2,500 when World War I began. Through the 20th century, it welcomed hundreds of thousands of troops, its reputation growing along with its size and ultimately drawing patients and dignitaries from around the world.

"The clinical center of gravity of American military medicine," the center billed itself.

But as the Base Realignment and Closure Commission looked at current medical needs in the Washington region, Walter Reed did not measure up. Its proximity to the National Naval Medical Center and its age -- the last capital update was 1977 -- were factors.

"It is very expensive to run a hospital. It just did not make sense to have two tertiary facilities within seven miles of each other," Winkenwerder said in an interview yesterday afternoon.

Over 20 years, the Pentagon projects savings of $301 million. Construction at Fort Belvoir and Bethesda probably would not begin until about 2009, Winkenwerder said, and the last medical programs would have to move from Walter Reed by 2011.

Any decision about what would happen to the Georgia Avenue property is years off, too. D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said the tract should revert to the city, "so we can have some control over what happens."

Lt. Gen. George P. Taylor, surgeon general of the Air Force and, with Winkenwerder, integrally involved in the closure recommendation, noted the "deliberative process the [defense] department goes through in disposing of or returning facilities and land. . . . The plan is there's not going to be a military requirement for the main post."

The announcement was the talk of the complex yesterday. Hundreds packed a gymnasium for a town hall-style meeting led by Maj. Gen. Kenneth L. Farmer, Walter Reed's commanding general. They emerged an hour later clutching information sheets titled "BRAC 2005."

In the hospital cafeteria, Master Sgt. Osvaldo Ponzo pondered the summary details as he ate lunch. Ponzo, who works in preventive medicine, said the realignment plan seemed innovative and more efficient. "I think it's important to take a look at how to better utilize our assets," he said.

Staff writers Theola S. Labbe and Chris L. Jenkins and news researchers Bobbye Pratt, Meg Smith, Madonna Lebling and Robert Lyford contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company