Base Closing Panel Members Visit Walter Reed

The city's congressional delegate pledged Friday to fight to save the Walter Reed Army Medical Center from the Pentagon's ax, but also urged members of the surrounding community to be realistic.

The Defense Department wants to merge Walter Reed (search) with the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and other Washington area military hospitals.

After touring Walter Reed with members of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-DC, also said the burden would be especially difficult because she believes the panel is inclined to follow the recommendations of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"The indictment, the presumption, is in favor of the Pentagon," said Norton, the city's nonvoting House member.

The argument to save Walter Reed must be made on military value, Norton said, because the panel is not likely to consider pleas from the community, economic factors, or the historic value of the nearly 100-year-old installation in Northwest Washington.

"We believe this facility right here has military value equal to the value it would have in a consolidated Bethesda hospital," she said.

BRAC (search) Chairman Anthony Principi was supposed to lead the fact finding mission, but did not attend because he was ill, BRAC staff members said. He was replaced by retired Gen. Lloyd Newton, a member of the commission.

Newton acknowledged that the commission's decision would hinge on getting the best resources for military members. But he also said the panel would get information from the community — and denied any bias in favor of the Pentagon.

"This commission is not a rubber stamp," he said. "It is an independent commission."

Norton acknowledged it would be a difficult struggle for the city, but she noted that there is a chance for success. She recalled the last round of base closings (search), when she said she saved 10,000 jobs at the Washington Navy Yard that were slated to be moved to California.

If the Pentagon does prevail, and Walter Reed is closed, Norton said the city's next fight would be for control of the land.

"The government does not give away land and there would need to be some negotiations," Norton said. "The good news is, I'm on the committee."