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Walter Reed: 'Healing place' for warriors set to close

In a cost-cutting move, Walter Reed Army Medical Center will close its doors for good. The hospital treated many of the country's wounded soldiers, including 18,000 Americans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

By Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent

Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a name synonymous with military medicine, took one step closer Wednesday to shutting its doors for good.  In a bittersweet "casing of the colors" ceremony, Army officers packed up their unit flags, never to be flown again over Walter Reed.

For more than 100 years, from World War I to Iraq and Afghanistan, Walter Reed provided medical care for hundreds of thousands of US military wounded.

"All the warriors have passed through here," Walter Reed's commander, Col. Norvell Coots, told NBC News.  "This has been a healing place for all of them."


AP

Maj. Walter Reed, circa 1875. for whom the medical center was named.

Dedicated in 1909, the Army hospital was named for Maj. Walter Reed, who discovered that mosquitoes were the source of yellow fever, which plagued American military forces in Cuba following the Spanish-American war.  Reed himself died of an infection from appendicitis seven years before the hospital was built.

With an original capacity of only 80 beds, Walter Reed was expanded to a sprawling 113 acres, now providing care for 700,000 patients per year.

Walter Reed is also an invaluable piece of American history. World War I Gen. John "Blackjack" Pershing lived in a three-room suite in the main hospital building for seven years before he died in 1948. Historian Dr. John Pierce said that although Pershing retired, he was often sought out for military advice. "Two-star Gen. George S. Patton came here to this room, got down on his knees, and General Pershing blessed him before he went off to World War II," according to Pierce.

President Dwight Eisenhower had his own suite in Ward 8, a high-security section of the main hospital.  Eisenhower was confined to the hospital for 11 months before he died in 1969.

See a slideshow of images from Walter Reed's long history

During the Civil War, the ground on which the hospital was later built was actually an encampment for the Confederate Army on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Col. Coots recounts that in 1864, a rebel sharpshooter climbed to the top of a tulip tree and fired off a round at President Lincoln standing in a parapet at a Union Army base nearby. The shot missed, but a young lieutenant pulled Lincoln down and, as history tells it, shouted, "Get down, you damned fool. The country can't afford to lose a president."

In the past 10 years, 18,000 service members wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan flooded Walter Reed. Advances in battlefield medicine had dramatically improved survivability rates. The former chief of Walter Reed's critical care nursing, Col. Rosemary Edinger, told NBC News, "During Vietnam, the soldiers we get back today would not have survived the battlefield."  But she also acknowledged, "The nature of the wounds, the amputees, is truly staggering at times."

The stress on Walter Reed's medical services also was staggering.  In 2007 a scandal broke over substandard housing conditions for Walter Reed outpatients.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired Army Secretary Francis Harvey over the scandal. Outpatient care was ultimately improved Army-wide.

Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images

Marine Cpl. Chris Santiago, center, waits in the fitting clinic at Walter Reed. He was injured in Iraq.

Five years ago, a Pentagon commission determined that the aging Walter Reed should be closed to cut costs. The remaining 150 of the most seriously wounded patients will be transferred in August to a new expanded facility at the Bethesda Naval Hospital to be named the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. 

The 113-acre Walter Reed campus, on the western outskirts of the nation's capital is prime real estate. The city will claim most of it for commercial development and housing. The State Department will take over the rest to provide offices and housing for visiting diplomats.

Pierce fears that in the handover, much of Walter Reed's history will be lost. "It's a big loss, it really is. I guess I just have to accept it – grudgingly."

But Col. Coots is confident of the medical center's legacy.

"Once you've been at Walter Reed, you can't get Walter Reed out of you," he said. "It's a part of your spirit forever."   

Col. Norvell Coots shows NBC's Jim Miklaszewski a Civil War battlefield recently found on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center and discusses the history of the facility as the hospital shuts its doors.