Part 5: Impact of BRAC on military health care; Era ends at Walter Reed

Tuesday - 5/10/2011, 1:02pm EDT

Investing in military hospitals

WTOP's Darci Marchese reports.

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Walter Reed closes

WTOP's Darci Marchese reports.

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Walter Reed Army Medical Center has been around for 102 years. (WTOP Photo/Darci Marchese)

Darci Marchese, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - BRAC means enormous changes for wounded warriors, military members and their families in the area. Their health care is about to change forever.

As part of the Base Realignment and Closure plan, Walter Reed Army Medical Center must close its doors. BRAC law says the 102-year-old medical institution will shut down no later than Sept. 15, 2011.

Patients instead will get their care at two other hospitals: Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County and National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda which will become the "new Walter Reed."

The official name under BRAC law is "Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Bethesda Maryland."

The transition is historic.

"This is the largest infrastructure investment ever made in the military system," says Vice Adm. John Mateczun, commander of the Joint Task Force National Capital Region Medical.

He says no expense is being spared to treat the nation's military heroes.

"We've been investing almost $2 1/2 billion into these extraordinary new hospitals," says Mateczun.

"Medical centers will be tremendous for all the ill and injured who will come here for care from Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever our country happens to be," he says

Col. Norvell Van Coots, commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, is impressed.

"The new construction at National Naval truly will make us the biggest and best military medical center in the entire world," he says.

Coots says the facilities will have world-class capabilities to treat traumatic brain injuries, amputee care and rehabilitation, behavioral health care, substance abuse, comprehensive cancer care and every specialty any state-of-the-art hospital would have.

Bethesda Naval has a long history of treating the nation's war wounded.

"We have had the most casualties that have come here and probably now have the most experience in the country" for treating war wounded, Mateczun says.

Coots says the closing of Walter Reed also brings treatment closer to the military population.

"What we've realized is we're putting health care where the beneficiaries are because the bulk of our beneficiaries don't live in the middle of Washington, D.C.," says Coots.

So people will be trading places and changing jobs.

"Overall, we have almost 9,000 people moving during this transition period," says Mateczun.

He says out of the employees who work at Walter Reed, two-thirds will shift to Walter Reed Bethesda and one-third to Fort Belvoir.

An era ends at Walter Reed Army Medical Center

In September, Walter Reed Army Medical Center closes its doors forever. To say its history is rich would be an understatement.

"For 102 years we've served this nation," says Col. Norvell Van Coots, commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

It will certainly be an end of an era, he says.

"We have to think of it in a way sort of like a wake in a funeral because to many people Walter Reed is like your favorite uncle who is passing away," says Coots.

The nation's war wounded have been treated here since the early 1900s. It was the nation's first medical facility for the military, and it was state-of-the-art from the beginning.

When the building opened on May 1, 1909, it received its first 10 patients.

"It was an 85-bed facility. It had indoor plumbing. It had a working elevator. It had an X-ray machine. Those are the things that made it state of the art for 1909," Coots says.

The hospital originally named "Walter Reed General Hospital" was named after Dr. Walter Reed.

Born in Belroi, Va. on Sept. 13, 1851, Reed was a U.S. Army physician and major who in 1900 led the team which postulated and confirmed the theory that yellow fever is transmitted by a particular mosquito species, rather than by direct contact.

Reed's appendix ruptured on Nov. 22, 1902. His best friend and surgeon, Dr. William Cline Borden, performed an emergency appendectomy but he died. Reed was 51 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

After Reed's death, Borden fought to create the very first medical center for the military, named in honor of Reed.

The hospital is located on hallowed ground.

"The land here is historic. It was chosen not by accident but because this is the Fort Stevens battlefield. You know the only battle of the Civil War fought within the nation's capital." says Coots.

During World War I, the medical center expanded. The building had its first major upgrade in 1977 when a second medical building was built.