July 24, 2011 / 1:15 AM / 8 years ago

Historic Walter Reed Army hospital prepares for move

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The storied Walter Reed Army Medical Center will retire its ceremonial flags on Wednesday, as it prepares to close its doors after more than a century of treating wounded American fighters and presidents.

A view of the main entrance to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington in this February 9, 2007 file photo. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/Files

Walter Reed has treated some 18,000 troops that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who died there, and Generals John J. Pershing and Douglas MacArthur.

The present facility, together with its current patients, will be moving to a new location in Bethesda, Maryland, throughout August, prior to shutting its doors on September 15.

But the official “casing of the colors” at the 102-year-old institution — as the ceremony to retire the hospital’s flags is known — will take place on Wednesday.

“The closing marks a transition to the next stage in the life of Walter Reed,” Walter Reed Army Medical Center Spokesman Chuck Dasey told Reuters, adding that the new joint services facility in Bethesda will be called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

“The name will continue on to represent the new flagship of military medicine,” he added.

Citing aging facilities and cost-saving strategies, a military base review panel decided in 2005 to close the center’s campus in Washington, D.C. and merge its operations with the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, which will cost an estimated $2 billion. The hospital will also occupy a new hospital at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

The new facilities will have new colors.

The closure of the present facility will affect more than 5,000 workers. Many of their jobs will move to Bethesda and a new community hospital at Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia.

The U.S. State Department and the District of Columbia will assume ownership of the facility. Some of the buildings will be preserved by landmark status. Others will be torn down or converted to other uses, possibly even shops, Dasey said.

The venerable facility’s long history has not been without its low moments.

Problems at an adjunct building of Walter Reed Army Medical Center were brought to light by a Washington Post investigation published in 2007. It found recuperating soldiers were living in a dilapidated building infested with mice, mold and cockroaches.

The Washington Post reports were particularly embarrassing because former U.S. President George W. Bush and senior defense officials had repeatedly visited the wounded in the hospital to show their concern for those who served in battle.

Bush said while most of the people working at the hospital were dedicated professionals, “some of our troops at Walter Reed have experienced bureaucratic delays and living conditions that are less than they deserve.”

Reporting by Eric Johnson; Editing by James B. Kelleher and Tim Gaynor

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