WASHINGTON — A solemn final moment came for Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Wednesday, when Army commanders rolled up maroon and green flags, symbols of the soul of the military unit that ran the hospital, and placed them in cloth cases, never to be unfurled again.
Hundreds of soldiers and staff gathered under a white tent on a beautiful morning to observe the symbolic and funereal end of what Army Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker called "the most treasured military medical center in the world."
The 102-year-old institution, which treated soldiers and presidents on its manicured redbrick campus, is due to close in September. Its operations are moving to the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where another military unit will take over, and the new Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia, while the State Department and the District of Columbia are taking over its storied grounds.
"There's a general sense of sadness...the same emotions anyone would feel when you close your home and move someplace else," said Col. Norvell Coots, the commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System.
Wednesday's festivities — Army parachutists dropped from the sky, drawing cheers — were a stark contrast to Walter Reed's humble beginnings. At its founding in 1909, 10 patients were brought over from the old Washington Barracks hospital, now Fort McNair, and the hospital opened quietly.
"There was no ceremony, no fanfare, no nothing," said Sherman Fleek, the command historian at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "Now we're having some fanfare and recognition, and it's wonderful."
Fleek said that Walter Reed — named for the military physician who discovered that mosquitoes transmitted yellow fever — was revolutionary in that it brought together a medical hospital, a research facility, the Army medical museum and the Army research library. It opened with 80 beds, a number that grew to 2,500 during World War I. Today, it spans 72 buildings over 113 acres.
Over the last century, the famous and powerful have come to Walter Reed. It's a tradition for presidents to visit wounded soldiers. Winston Churchill and other foreign heads of state were treated there. Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon were patients, as were Gens. Douglas MacArthur and John Pershing.
Bob Hope was a regular visitor for four decades, and Oprah Winfrey dropped by recently.
The campus was also the site of a brief Civil War battle in 1864, and a marker lies where Confederate sharpshooters climbed a tulip tree and almost killed President Abraham Lincoln. Historians say the sharpshooters hit a surgeon next to Lincoln, prompting a Union officer — as legend has it, the future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes — to call Lincoln a "damned fool" and urge him to take cover.
Hundreds of thousands of soldiers have been treated at Walter Reed.
For Army Secretary John McHugh, a warrior ethos pulsed through the hallways, and soldiers rejected defeat even from their hospital beds. McHugh said he used to worry about how to cheer up wounded soldiers before a visit.
"In truth, each time after each visit, it's they that do the lifting," he said at the ceremony. "Their courage, their strength, is an incredible source of inspiration."
Col. Lorraine Fritz, the deputy commander for nursing, said the center was iconic for the Army. For Army doctors and nurses, she said, serving at Walter Reed is a goal.
Sgt. Shaun Tichenor came to the ceremony with his wife and three children. The Minnesota native was admitted to Walter Reed in June after he lost his right leg in an explosion in Afghanistan. Doctors fitted him with a prosthetic leg, and said he should be running in five months.
"You can tell the staff genuinely care about what's going on here and take care of the wounded warriors," Tichenor said. "I had no idea before I got here what I was going to be capable of, with the technology and the care they have here."
For Schoomaker, the day was bittersweet. He started his military career on the Walter Reed campus and met and married his wife, a nurse, while serving here.
"I discovered early in my career that I was best prepared for what life threw me if I took an Army nurse along with me," he said.
Over the years, the name of the institution changed several times. Now the buildings are changing, too, and the land will go to the State Department and the District of Columbia, which are expected to tear down the buildings that aren't designated historical sites.
But what doesn't change, Fleek said, is the spirit of the physician the facility was named for.
We should remember "all that is important, to keep that spirit of medical care and service to our soldiers and also our families," Fleek said.
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