The historic Walter Reed Army Medical Center, formerly known as the Nation’s military flagship hospital serving more than 150,000 active and retired personnel from all branches of the military, will close its doors this week amidst reports of cost cutting measures and inadequate patient care for the returning Iraq and Afghanistan wounded.
After more than a century, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center facility, and the current patients housed at the center, will be moving to a new location in Bethesda, Md., starting Wednesday.
The storied hospital will be merging with the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and a hospital at Fort Belvoir, Va.
“For many of the staff members, even though they know this is the future of the military health system, in a way, it’s still like losing your favorite uncle,” Col. Norvell Coots, commander of the facility said at a public meeting.
“So, there is a certain amount of mourning that is going on and it is an emotional time. The new facility at Bethesda will be called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, reflecting its multi-service scope.”
The Walter Reed Army Medical Center is a vast hospital complex on the outskirts of Washington D.C., which the Army described as the "clinical center of gravity of American military medicine."
Named in Major Walter Reed's honor, the medical center admitted its first patients on May 1, 1909.
Walter Reed, an American Army surgeon, was a well-known pathologist who proved the mosquito spread yellow fever.
World War I saw the hospital's capacity grow from 80 patient beds to 2,500 in a matter of months.
The announcement about the closing of the hospital this week is bringing back reports of the 2007 scandal that dealt with living conditions around the hospital and exposed inadequate Army operations and a disconnect between medical and social services.
News reports in 2007 exposed the shortcomings at Walter Reed and turned the center into a symbol of the government's broader failure to help troops injured in those wars.
Some critics say the hospital has never recovered from the events of 2007.
Articles in The Washington Post reported on the despicable conditions that veterans were living in.
The Army moved aggressively to make improvements, but never really quite recovered financially or socially.
The secretary of the Army and the hospital's commander were dismissed as a result of the problems that came to light.
Dana Priest and Anne Hull, two Washington Post staff writers, reported in 2007 that the common perception of Walter Reed is that it was a surgical hospital that shined as the crown jewel of military medicine. But 5 1/2 years of sustained combat transformed the venerable 113-acre institution into something else entirely – “a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients.”
“The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, and cheap mattresses,” the news report said.
“The wounded manage other wounded. Soldiers dealing with psychological disorders of their own have been put in charge of others at risk of suicide,” the reports revealed.
The stunning news reports, followed by an investigation, revealed issues buried deep within the medical center’s operations showing soldiers staying at the hospital for an incredible amount of time without diagnosis.
News reports revealed disengaged clerks, unqualified platoon sergeants and overworked case managers that fumbled with simple needs.
Vera Heron spent 15 frustrating months living on post to help care for her son. "It just absolutely took forever to get anything done," Heron told reporters.
"They do the paperwork, they lose the paperwork. Then they have to redo the paperwork. You are talking about guys and girls whose lives are disrupted for the rest of their lives, and they don't put any priority on it."
President Bush proposed a series of changes intended to streamline the military disability system that he said had fallen behind the times and had left too many disabled soldiers falling through the cracks.
“Leadership at Walter Reed should have been aware of poor living conditions and administrative hurdles and failed to place proper priority on solutions,” an independent panel investigating the allegations at the hospital said in a summary of its draft report released at a meeting at Walter Reed.
The report called the current system for assessing soldiers’ disabilities “extremely cumbersome, inconsistent, and confusing,” saying it must be “completely overhauled.” It called for the creation of a “center of excellence” on treatment, training and research on two conditions suffered by thousands of troops in Iraq: traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The financial load to correct the mounting problems at Walter Reed also prompted lawmakers to say “the hospital was never able to recover from a decade of mistrust.”
Despite the overwhelming evidence of neglect and the inadequate facilities, Walter Reed Hospital will leave its mark in history with a number of unique stories and accomplishments.
Throughout the years, hundreds of thousands of the nation’s war wounded from World War I to today have received treatment at the famous medical center, including 18,000 troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Dwight Eisenhower, and Generals John J. Pershing and Douglas MacArthur died at the hospital.
For some, there are good memories at the hospital.
There was a rose garden, where nurses married their patients during the Vietnam War. There was a chapel where President Truman first attended services after assuming office upon the death of President Franklin Roosevelt, having first visited with retired General Pershing.
A historical marker on the campus shows where Confederate soldiers fired at President Abraham Lincoln.
Today, the complex treats 775,000 outpatients per year and has 150 inpatient beds.
Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of the former hospital president, said it is a sad week for America.
“Frankly, I will say it’s with a heavy heart that Walter Reed closes. I don’t know. I know that there was a process for that decision,” she told reporters.
“But we’ve lost a great, important part of history.”