WASHINGTON – The federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission has recommended to close the world-renowned Walter Reed Army Medical Center outside Washington, D.C. as part of the Pentagon's plan to restructure military bases across the country.
If the plan is approved, the hospital would move most staff and services to the National Naval Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Md., to create an expanded facility and streamline medical services. The new center will be renamed "Walter Reed."
Other staff members may be moved to a community center at Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia. The decision could affect 1,300 people who work at the venerable Walter Reed facility, which has treated presidents, senators and foreign leaders as well as soldiers and veterans.
"Kids coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, all of them in harm's way, deserve to come back to 21st-century medical care," commission Chairman Anthony Principi (search) said Thursday. "But the hospital is old; it needs to be modernized."
One-time costs, including construction and renovations, would total $989 million. The Pentagon would save $301 million over 20 years by consolidating operations at the naval hospital, the commissioners said. The expanded facility would be renamed Walter Reed. The current hospital has about 185 beds, but the expanded facility would have 340.
After four months of studying the Pentagon's proposal, the BRAC also on Thursday began debate on the Air Force's plans, arguably the most contentious debates for the group.
Principi said he expected to finish voting no later than Friday, a day earlier than planned. The commission must send its final report to President Bush by Sept. 8.
The president can accept it as a whole, reject it or send it back to the commission for revisions. Congress also will have a chance to veto the plan in its entirety but it has not taken that step in four previous rounds of base closings (search). If ultimately approved, the changes would occur over the next six years.
In other decisions Thursday, the commission voted to keep open two key Monterey, Calif., military facilities — the Defense Language Institute (search) and the Naval Postgraduate School.
It also approved the establishment of a governing board to coordinate education programs between the Naval Postgraduate School and a military school in Ohio, the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.
The BRAC also approved shutting Brooks City-Base in San Antonio, Texas, but decided to keep some of its work in Texas.
Research that was to move out of state under the Pentagon's recommendation will instead go to Fort Sam Houston (search), also in San Antonio. Other portions of Brooks' work also will move to Lackland and Randolph Air Force bases in San Antonio.
The city-owned technology park with the Air Force as its dominant tenant has about 1,100 military, 1,300 civilian jobs and 800 contractors. Brooks is home to the School of Aerospace Medicine (search), which has played a key role in the manned space program. Tang, the orange drink created for astronauts, was developed at Brooks in the 1960s.
The panel also sided with the Pentagon in deciding to shift more than 20,000 military and civilian defense jobs from leased office space in northern Virginia suburbs of Washington near the Pentagon to military bases further away from the capital city. Opponents fear such a massive job shift could create traffic nightmares. But the Pentagon says military bases will provide a more secure setting, given threats of terrorism following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But Virginia lawmakers were fuming.
"These decisions are short sighted, to say the least, and fail to take into account the real world effect of these actions," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. "By moving activities away from Northern Virginia, the Defense Department will lose countless highly skilled, difficult-to-replace employees who will choose to seek other employment rather than uproot their families and move out of the area. It will take years, if not decades, to recover from these ill-conceived proposals."
Ellsworth's Fate Unknown
Much of the Air Force plan includes recommendations to shake up the Air National Guard. It also proposes closing both Ellsworth Air Force Base (search) in South Dakota and Cannon Air Force Base (search) in New Mexico.
"We're doing some very large muscle movements," Gen. Gary Heckman, a top Air Force official who helped lead the service's base-closing analysis team, said in an interview.
He said his service branch wasn't hit in previous rounds of closures as hard as the Army and Navy because overhauling the Air Force's structure — which is what has been proposed this time around — is very difficult.
Ellsworth's proposed closing has caused the most political consternation because freshman Sen. John Thune (search) had argued during the 2004 campaign that he — rather his Democratic opponent, then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle — would be in a better position to save the facility. Nonetheless, it showed up on the Pentagon's closure list.
The entire South Dakota congressional delegation — Thune, Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and Rep. Stephanie Herseth, a Democrat — attended the hearing, as did Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico
"We need Ellsworth because of the important work people do there," Thune told FOX News on Thursday, noting that the military's B1 bombers are made there.
"The B1 bomber has been the weapon, the weapon of choice ... and it will be prominent in our national security needs for some time going forward."
Thune said the cost savings of closing Ellsworth are minimal compared to the risk of closing it.
"We think that presents an inherent security risk as well as some operational deficiencies ... [the difference in savings] really ends up being quite negligible," Thune said.
The senator said he would continue campaigning to keep the base open in an effort to win over the majority of the commission. He noted that the administration has stressed it will stay out of the process and let the military take the lead.
"We've made the decision that we're going to win this on the merit. ... We think there is tremendous military value for Ellsworth going forward and we think we can persuade five of the nine commissioners to take Ellsworth off the list," Thune said.
By far, the most controversy — both on the commission and off — has surrounded the Air Force.
Most of its proposals cover the Air National Guard and would shift people, equipment and aircraft around at 54 or more sites where Guard units are stationed.
Aircraft would be taken from 25 Air National Guard units. Instead of flying missions, those units would get other missions such as expeditionary combat support roles. They also would retain their state missions of aiding governors during civil disturbances and natural disasters.
Several states have sued to stop the shake-up, the commission itself has voiced concern that the plan would compromise homeland security, and the Justice Department was brought in to settle arguments over whether the Pentagon could relocate Air National Guard units without a governor's consent. The ruling said it could.
The Pentagon says as a package, the Air Force proposals represent an effort to reshape the service branch into a more effective fighting force by consolidating weapons systems and personnel, given that it will have a smaller but smarter aircraft fleet in the future.
Overall, the Pentagon has proposed closing or consolidating a record 62 major military bases and 775 smaller installations to save $48.8 billion over 20 years, streamline the services and reposition the Armed Forces.
Since the Pentagon announced its proposal in May, commissioners had voiced concerns about several parts of it, including the estimate of how much money would be saved.
The commission on Wednesday voted to keep open several major Army and Navy bases that military planners want to shut down, including the Portsmouth shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and the New London submarine base in Groton, Conn., two of the Navy's oldest.
"They have proved they are not a rubber stamp," said David Berteau, a Pentagon official who oversaw base closings for the Pentagon in 1991 and 1993. "But we don't know yet what the common theme is because they're dealing with each of these on a case-by-case basis."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.