The last patients from Walter Reed Army Medical Center moved to the Bethesda center on Saturday, and the Army hospital effectively closed after more than a century.
Among the new residents at Bethesda is Marine Cpl. Tyler Southern, a 22-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla. While on patrol in Afghanistan in May 2010, Southern was severely wounded when he stepped on an improvised explosive device. Now a triple amputee, Southern — wearing a T-shirt that read “Combat Wounded Marine: Some assembly required” — worked out last week on the equipment at a new physical therapy center for amputees.
Southern, along with his company commander, has written an essay reflecting on what the controversial consolidation means for him and other wounded service members at the new Walter Reed.
Southern had hoped to be a career Marine in the infantry. Though he has realigned his goals, he wants to stay in the Marine Corps in public affairs. “I feel like I haven’t given enough yet,” Southern said.
The following essay was written by Southern with the assistance of Capt. Aloysius Boyle, commander of a Wounded Warrior company of Marines at Bethesda:
Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, has become a sound bite heard on radio waves, a term mentioned on news channels and read in local papers. It was a plan announced in 2005 to downsize and consolidate military installations across the country. Since its announcement, National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., has prepared for its historic integration with its counterpart, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, located four miles away in Northwest Washington.
In the D.C. metropolitan area, implementation of this plan has evolved, affecting hundreds of thousands of people due to the enormity and complexity of merging infrastructure, staff and best practices. Some first reactions to the word “BRAC” are frustrations over longer commutes on highways, a more crowded Metro system and inconvenient parking.
These are viable concerns, but so are the sacrifices of the men and women who are recovering at these hospitals. Many, through no fault of their own, are not considering the positive impacts on the lives of those moving to the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) at Bethesda.
“BRAC” meant nothing to me when it was first announced in 2005. Then, I was going into my junior year in high school, hanging out with friends on the beach in Jacksonville, Fla., and participating in the Junior ROTC unit. I am from a military family, like many people here in the D.C. area, but wanted to forge my own path. I joined the Marines, reporting to boot camp the Monday after I graduated high school. Eighteen months after high school I was serving in Iraq. Three years after graduation, I was fighting in Afghanistan.
In May 2010, life changed when I led my Marines on an intelligence-based raid.
While conducting this mission and leading my Marines, I stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED). Almost two weeks later, I woke up in Bethesda missing both legs above the knee, one arm above the elbow, and had severe damage to my other arm and hand.
These days, the details concerning this integration could not hold greater significance to me; my wife, Ashley; and the multitude of wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and their families. To me and many others, the new WRNMMC is more than the merging of two military flagship medical centers; it’s a convergence of two formative periods of our lives. At Bethesda, medical professionals and staff fought for us to live, and at Walter Reed they taught us how to live.
I am not alone. There are many severely wounded across our military services who are anxiously awaiting movement to the joint medical center. Bringing together both the Army’s and Navy’s medical systems is akin to reuniting family. For the first time since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, acute military medical care will be collocated to best support our returning wounded.
This synergy and unity of effort is entirely fitting. While in combat, and under duress, we rely on each other for support. Once wounded, men and women in theater are receiving lifesaving aid on the battlefield and throughout their trip home. It only makes sense that we continue to fortify this strong relationship in our warrior care and aid their recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration.
This joint effort in military health systems is, in itself, progress that supports the military mission. This enterprise will intertwine all services’ knowledge of combat medical care and compile their innovative research, experience and technology, as well as the collocating of numerous nonprofit organizations, civilian contractors, staff and volunteers who support our wounded, ill and injured heroes.
The commitment to excellence in service for our most severely wounded has not spared a single detail. The world-class facilities are already operational and caring for amputees, including spacious new living accommodations for our wounded and their families. The newly integrated facility has enhanced apartment-style spaces for wounded warriors that come fully furnished, equipped with kitchens and all amenities, televisions, computers, printers, as well as washer and dryer units.
Additionally, innovative construction processes for the new inpatient and outpatient buildings are already supporting our men and women in uniform. The area devoted to physical and occupational therapy houses a rock wall, indoor track and myriad fitness machines to help us regain strength, dexterity and balance. Furthermore, the building contains an indoor pool for aquatics training for amputees. What won’t be changing are the familiar faces of the leaders who care for the critically wounded during the healing process and assist them back into service or the civilian world.
For Ashley and I, this will be the first time as husband and wife that we will have access to these types of accommodations. This is not just a quality-of-life issue, but also gives our wounded Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen, like me, practical application of the skills they are learning in occupational and physical therapy by learning how to live in an apartment setting. Building these skills in this environment will reinforce the efforts of the hospital staff.
At the turn of the 19th century, Army Maj. Walter Reed’s innovative research on yellow fever was instrumental in combating disease, enabling men to get back to work on the Panama Canal and ultimately setting the conditions for a successful economy. His legacy in aiding this mission left a historic mark on military medicine.
It is only fitting that a century later, our severely wounded are relearning life skills at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to ensure they have the opportunity to get back to work and make a positive impact on society. It is there our young leaders will again learn to take their first steps on the road to their new life.