WASHINGTON – Maj. Walter Reed's sword was symbolically handed over to the Navy at a ceremony Wednesday marking the closure of the Army hospital bearing his name, where hundreds of thousands of the nation's war wounded have been treated for more than a century.
The tone was somber at times, but mostly celebratory, as more than a thousand former and current staff members and patients — some of them wounded troops from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in wheelchairs who have lost limbs — gathered under a white tent to say goodbye to the Army's flagship hospital.
The Army band played, paratroopers jumped out of a plane, and flags representing various units on the hospital grounds were symbolically cased in black.
The hospital opened in 1909 and has a storied history of care to military members, their families and presidents. President Dwight Eisenhower died there, as did Gens. John J. Pershing and Douglas MacArthur. But in 2007, that reputation was scarred by a scandal about substandard living conditions on its grounds for wounded troops in outpatient care that led to improvements in care for the wounded throughout the military. No mention was made at the ceremony about the scandal.
Instead, the innovation in prosthetics and care to the nation's war wounded at Walter Reed was honored. Most recently, more than 18,000 troops from the current wars have gone there for treatment.
Army Secretary John McHugh said Walter Reed has never been about bricks and mortar, but about "spirit and hope and compassion" that will continue after the hospital closed.
"These doors may close, the address may change, but the name, the legacy and most importantly the work and the healing will endure," McHugh said.
Two years before the scandal, a government commission charged with closing military bases to save money said facilities at Walter Reed needed to be modernized, and it voted to close Walter Reed. The main hospital in use today opened in 1977.
The State Department and the District of Columbia will take possession of the hospital grounds on Sept. 15.
The hospital's operations are being moved in August to new and upgraded facilities at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and at Fort Belvoir, Va. The price tag for the new facilities is $2.6 billion.
The hospital in Bethesda will be called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and it's because of that new relationship that Reed's sword was handed during the ceremony from Army Maj. Gen. Carla Hawley-Bowland to Navy Rear Adm. Matthew Nathan. Reed was an Army physician whose research proved that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquito.
Kimberly Hefling can be reached at http://twitter.com/khefling
Walter Reed Society: http://www.walterreedsociety.org/
National Naval Medical Center: http://www.bethesda.med.navy.mil
Walter Reed Army Medical Center: http://www.wramc.amedd.army.mil
Office of Medical History: http://history.amedd.army.mil