The word spread quietly and quickly yesterday over lunch in the third-floor cafeteria, in the hallways near nursing stations and along the grassy knolls of the guarded, 113-acre campus off Georgia Avenue NW: Walter Reed Army Medical Center almost certainly was closing for good.
Most of the D.C. hospital's 5,630 workers had suspected as much since May, when the Pentagon issued its recommendation to shutter the facility. But the news that a federal commission had approved the closing of the premier U.S. military hospital, which has helped heal the broken bodies of soldiers and presidents alike for nearly a century, still hit hard.
"This is the flagship of Army medicine," said Capt. Daryl Turner, 33, an operating nurse. "I guess the government has bigger plans in store."
Named after the Army major and physician who discovered that mosquitoes transmit yellow fever, Walter Reed opened May 1, 1909, with 80 beds but expanded to 2,500 after the outbreak of World War I. Through six U.S. wars, it was where hundreds of thousands of wounded combatants came to heal.
The current 260-bed medical center opened in 1978, and the original hospital is now an administration building.
In addition to treating members of the armed forces and veterans, the hospital has cared for presidents, members of Congress and foreign dignitaries. President Calvin Coolidge's teenage son had surgery at Walter Reed for septic poisoning in 1924. President Dwight D. Eisenhower stayed overnight for medical checkups before and during his presidency, and he and Gen. Douglas MacArthur spent their final days there.
After the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the hospital reprised its role in treating war veterans for physical and psychological ailments. As of yesterday, doctors and other staff members had seen 4,666 soldiers from the Iraq war, for conditions ranging from missing limbs to post-traumatic stress disorder.
The complex has an on-site laboratory that constructs artificial limbs, correction braces and other devices and is the Army's hearing-aid repair center. It also has the service's only ocularist -- a specialist who creates artificial eyeballs -- and employs veterinarians who care for military "working animals" as well as the household pets of service members. The hospital's research includes projects on hepatitis, breast cancer, AIDS and illnesses related to the Persian Gulf War.
Unless President Bush or Congress overturn the base-closing commission's decision, Walter Reed will shut down as early as 2010. Under the Pentagon's plan, many of the hospital's jobs and services would be transferred to an expanded teaching and research hospital at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, which would keep the Walter Reed name. Other health care services and workers would be moved to a community hospital to be built at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County.
Despite two briefings held by military officials last week to prepare employees for the closure, most workers interviewed yesterday said they had little idea whether their jobs would be sent to Maryland or Virginia.
Even the hospital's public affairs office had no information on the process for reassigning military and civilian employees, or on what would happen to the National Museum of Health and Medicine on the Walter Reed campus, with its more than 1 million archived materials and artifacts.
"We don't know anything," a spokeswoman for the hospital said yesterday afternoon. "We're watching it on television like everyone else."
At the rowhouses outside the gates, residents with a front-stoop view of the center's rose-brick buildings were mourning the recommendation. Darlean White, 59, remembered how she would spread a blanket on the hospital's grassy lawn, enjoying ham sandwiches and fruit drinks while her granddaughter Taylor bounced a ball. Sometimes she would fall asleep on her front stoop, she felt that safe with a military installation right across the street, she said.
After Sept. 11, 2001, the picnics stopped because officials required identification to enter the campus, White said. Still, it was the hospital's ambulance workers who were first on the scene of a recent car accident in front of her home, even before D.C. police, White said. And in addition to being a good neighbor, White said, the mammoth military campus was a buffer against crime.
"Once Walter Reed leaves, we won't have any security," said White, who has lived in her Georgia Avenue home for 20 years. "People respect Walter Reed. If they put people and apartments over there, I may have to leave."
Less than a block from the main gate, Gabrielle Sawyer, 10, sold lemonade with her cousin for 50 cents a cup as her mother held a small yard sale. Gabrielle recalled a school trip to the Walter Reed museum and the old military uniforms and ancient bones that were on display.
"I just think the building is a treasure," said Gabrielle, who is starting sixth grade next week. "They shouldn't be moving it."
Staff researchers Madonna Lebling and Bob Lyford contributed to this report.