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Commission votes to close historic Walter Reed hospital

WASHINGTON—Soldiers from all of America's wars in the 20th and 21st centuries have been treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. On Thursday, the base closing commission voted to shut down the hospital, saying soldiers today need a more modern facility.

Presidents, veterans and soldiers have received medical care at Walter Reed since 1909. Its campus is beautiful—some 100 rose-colored brick buildings surrounded by lawns and old trees on a large piece of land in the nation's capital.

The decision on the historic hospital came as the commission votes on the hundreds of military facilities that the Pentagon is seeking to close to save money and streamline operations nationwide. Late Thursday, the commission also voted to close several Air Force facilities in Alaska and California. It's expected to wrap up its deliberations Friday, with important votes on whether to close Air Force bases in New Mexico and South Dakota along with plans to restructure or shut down dozens of Air National Guard and Reserve bases around the country.

The 3,700 doctors, nurses and technicians at Walter Reed—named for an Army doctor who pioneered prevention and treatment of the deadly scourges yellow fever and typhoid fever—will eventually move to the Navy's National Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., a few miles away. That center will be expanded and renamed the Walter Reed National Medical Center.

The move will cost nearly a billion dollars, but the Pentagon's civilian leaders estimate it will save $301 million over 20 years as they seek to upgrade and streamline care and treatment of the nation's war-wounded.

Anthony J. Principi, chairman of the nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission, said medical care at Walter Reed is "extraordinary." But the hospital needs to be modernized, he said.

"The kids coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, all of them in harm's way, deserve to come back to 21st-century medical care," said Principi, former chief of the Department of Veterans Affairs. "Whatever the cost, we need to incur that cost to provide world-class medical care to these extraordinary young men and women who are in harm's way."

Walter Reed was originally built to handle more than 1,000 patients, but it has only 185 beds occupied on a daily basis, according to the panel's analysts. Bethesda Naval Hospital has 345 beds. More than $200 million will be spent to upgrade and expand facilities at Bethesda, and a new 140-bed hospital is to be built at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.

The commission's analysts said they studied a plan to move naval medical facilities from Bethesda to Walter Reed, but their analysis showed that it would cost $400 million more than the current plan.

The commission also voted to consolidate military hospitals in San Antonio and Fort Lewis, Wash.

The panel also signed off on Pentagon plans to move thousands of Defense Department employees out of leased space in and around Washington to military bases in Virginia and Maryland. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has cited security concerns as the reason behind the plan.

The votes came as part of a package of Pentagon recommendations to combine hundreds of medical, supply, finance, research, intelligence, logistics and other support functions from across the armed forces into "joint" installations that would serve all four military services. Pentagon officials say the consolidated functions and bases will eliminate duplication, save money and improve cooperation and efficiency among the services.

Late Thursday, the commission voted to close a small Cold War-era forward airstrip at Galena, Alaska, and to shut down Onizuka Air Force Station in California.

But commissioners struck down a Pentagon proposal to scale back operations at Eielson Air Force Base, near Fairbanks, Alaska. Instead, they voted to keep A-10 and F-16 fighter jets at the base, rather than move them and 2,700 personnel to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.

On Friday, the commission is expected to vote on the fate of Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico and Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota as well as dozens of other Air Force facilities.

The Air Force wants to close both Cannon and Ellsworth, at the cost of thousands of local jobs, but governors from New Mexico and South Dakota, along with other elected officials are lobbying hard to keep those installations open.

The Pentagon wants to close or restructure 62 major bases and consolidate activities at more than 800 other facilities around the country. It says the closures will save $49 billion over the next 20 years and help restructure the military from a Cold War force to one better suited to meet the demands of the war against terrorists and future strategic needs.

The plan also would eliminate more than 26,000 federal jobs.

The commission must submit its final list of closures to President Bush by Sept. 8. The president can either accept the entire list or send it back once for revisions. Congress must approve or reject the list within 45 days after the president signs off on it, but Congress can't make any changes.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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