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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.

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 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 Thursday 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.

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. Communities affected by it have lobbied to keep their military installations.

The commission swept through dozens of votes on Wednesday, closing five Army bases in Georgia, New Jersey, Virginia and Michigan, two Navy installations in the Gulf of Mexico, Navy air stations in Georgia and Maine, plus hundreds of Reserve and National Guard centers around the country.

But the panel rejected the Pentagon's proposals to close an Army depot in Texas and to close two Navy bases in New England.

The commission will take up deliberations on Air Force and National Guard bases on Friday.

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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