published Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Era ends at Walter Reed

The Walter Reed Army Medical Center is recognized by many Americans. It should be. The 102-year-old medical facility has played a distinct role in the nation's annals. It's closure next month is a reminder of both the history of the facility and of the rapidly changing needs of the U.S. military medical establishment.

As is the case with most long-lived institutions, Walter Reed's history is checkered. Generations of Americans correctly associate the medical center with presidents and other high-profile individuals treated there. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, was a patient when he signed legislation that created the nation's Interstate Highway system. He spent the last months of his life in the presidential suite there.

Other presidents before and after Ike utilized the facility or went there for annual physicals and routine tests. Understandably, the presidents, high-ranking members of the military and foreign dignitaries who spent time there are best remembered by the public. Truth is, though, the medical center deserves equal or more acclaim for the medical care and related services it provided to hundreds of thousands of ordinary members of the military during its existence.

Walter Reed is still the principal hospital for soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Early in August, though, new patients will be diverted to more modern centers in nearby Maryland and Virginia that will serve all military branches rather than just the army.

Walter Reed's reputation took a major hit in 2007. That's when reporters from the Washington Post detailed how horrific living conditions and bureaucratic bungling endangered the lives of some soldiers there. The fallout was considerable, but it did prompt major changes in the way the center was managed and in the way treatment was monitored. Those new programs became models for similar facilities.

Those problems should not be forgotten. They are a reminder that even the best of medical facilities are vulnerable to mismanagement. What should be remembered along with the 2007 incident, though, is that the Walter Reed center, for most of its history, provided a high standard of medical care. Indeed, it consistently ranks among the best in the country, if not in the world, in the area of prostheses and the delivery of in-house and outpatient therapies related to their use.

Walter Reed's grounds and buildings will be given to the District of Columbia and to the State Department for development. The center's demise, though, should not erase memories of an institution that served the nation in admirable fashion for so much of its existence.

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