By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
The ceremony at Walter Reed Army Medical Center yesterday was not part of the official centennial celebration this week to mark the hospital's 100th year. It wasn't printed in any of the brochures, or advertised on the hospital's Web site, or open to the general public.
But in a time of war, it's a ceremony that happens all too often at the hospital. There was Sgt. Patrick Marziale, who after just a few weeks with his prosthetic leg had already conquered stairs, waiting to be awarded a Purple Heart. Next to him were two soldiers wounded in Afghanistan: Sgt. Ramond Acosta, who was hit by a bomb, and Staff Sgt. Kurtis Dellicker, who was wounded in a rocket blast so strong it blew off his body armor.
One after another, they walked confidently, if stiffly, onto the stage where a four-star general affixed the prestigious medal to their chests. Then, to standing ovations from their fellow soldiers, caregivers and family members, the soldiers went back to their seats, and, later, to the physical therapy room and the long road of convalescence.
For 100 years, the country's wounded warriors have been treated at Walter Reed. To commemorate the centennial this week, there are public tours of the hospital every day through Friday. Before dawn today, there will be a two-mile walk and run designed to showcase some of its historical sites. Tomorrow, there is a history symposium, and Friday, a formal ball.
The hospital in Northwest Washington opened in 1909 with 80 beds and was named for a Virginia-born soldier who was the son of a minister. Maj. Walter Reed served as a doctor on the American frontier and was said to have treated Geronimo's Apache Indians while in Alabama. He died in 1902, and seven years later the hospital was established in his honor.
By World War I, new structures sprouted up, giving the hospital a capacity of 2,500 to treat the casualties streaming back from Europe. During World War II, about 18,000 patients passed through its doors in 1943 alone. Since then, Walter Reed has served privates to generals to commanders-in-chief, including presidents Truman, Eisenhower and Nixon. Under the Pentagon's base realignment plan, the hospital is to be consolidated by September 2011 with the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda to create an expanded health care campus.
The truth about military medicine is this: "Any military hospital is going to make its reputation on the wounded soldiers it cares for," said John R. Pierce, historian for the Walter Reed Society, a nonprofit organization that supports the hospital.
There was, of course, "the blemish" on Walter Reed's name after problems with outpatient care and bureaucracy were revealed two years ago, said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, who awarded the soldiers their medals yesterday. But Walter Reed "has always been bigger than even the name. It's known throughout the Army as the premier health care facility."
Today it serves hundreds of patients streaming back from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Less than three months ago, Marziale was in Iraq on his last mission, recovering a weapons cache, when insurgents hit his convoy with grenades. The explosion rocked his Humvee and ripped off his left leg. Now he spends his days in physical and occupation therapy learning to become proficient on his prosthesis.
He walks with a limp but said that despite the four surgeries since arriving at Walter Reed, "the only difference is if a dog bites my ankle, it ain't going to hurt me."
For more information on the hospital and its centennial events, visit http://www.wramc.amedd.army.mil/