By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 27, 2011 – An ambulance carrying the last inpatient from Walter Reed Army Medical Center here slowly made its way out of the Georgia Avenue gate this morning, pausing briefly for the crowd of flag-waving troop supporters and shouts of “Thank you for your service! We love you!”
As the ambulance turned north on Georgia Avenue toward the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., the once-bustling Walter Reed hospital fell silent.
This early morning move of inpatients -- one to an ambulance -- marked the end of an era for Walter Reed and its 102 years of Army medicine that has saved hundreds of thousands of military lives.
Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center are consolidating as one medical center as mandated by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Act. The Army and Navy complex on the grounds of Bethesda will be renamed the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“It's been 102 years for Walter Reed, but the legacy lives on,” Army Col. Norvell "Van" Coots, Walter Reed commander, told reporters this morning at the hospital. “The name lives on, and it’s a new beginning for our health care system.”
Earlier expectations were to move 150 inpatients this weekend, Coots said, but the number was reduced to 50, and gradually became 18 this morning after eight were moved to Bethesda yesterday. Walter Reed’s staff also was able to discharge and relocate many other patients who wanted to be hospitalized closer to their homes.
With Hurricane Irene bearing down on the East Coast today, the move was made a day earlier than planned.
As the Red Cross flag came down from the front of the hospital this afternoon, it signaled the final closing of the iconic medical center.
“The Red Cross flag is the symbol of health and healing, and symbolizes the end of physical patient care at Walter Reed,” Coots said.
Walter Reed has been the Army's flagship of military medicine since 1909, and cared for soldiers during World War I and World War II, the Korean conflict, the Vietnam War, and the decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A small post, Walter Reed had no room to expand and accommodate more wounded warriors, Coots said in a press conference earlier this summer. The medical center straddles a couple of neighborhood blocks between Georgia Avenue and 16th Street.
The Walter Reed garrison and installation will remain open until Sept. 15, Coots said. When the U.S. flag comes down that day, he added, the installation and the garrison will close for good.
Sometime afterward, Walter Reed will become the property of the District of Columbia government, and the State Department is expected to take over the hospital building.
Looking forward to a new beginning, Coots said today was emotional as he walked the wards early this morning, stopping in to check on each of the remaining 18 patients.
“There’s still an energy you can feel in those halls,” he said. “It’s an energy that’s left behind from the hundreds of thousands of patients we’ve treated in these 102 years, and the tens of thousands of staff members.
“We take Walter Reed with us,” Coots added. “And we leave a piece of it here."