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The legacy of Walter Reed

I recently received some criticism from a reader of the this column for its being titled “Liberal and Proud.” He thought the name was sinful. There are many ways to be proud – one is ego, and another is taking pride in those people, events and happenings around you. I am proud, and what I am proud of is the United States Army’s medicine. It is unparalleled the world over, and last week’s “Casing of The Colors” at Walter Reed Army Hospital should give every American of every stripe something to be proud of.

The Base Realignment and Closure Commission decided in May 2005 that Walter Reed Medical Center would be closed and that the Army hospital would integrate its resources with the Navy in Bethesda, Md., where the Naval Hospital is located. The closing ceremony was Wednesday, but the hospital will not have its last patient leave till the end of August.

Since 1909, when the first patients were admitted, the hospital has been in the forefront of Army medicine. I had a chance to tour the hospital last December and was amazed at the technology and care given to our soldiers. The detail was without parallel, even down to making sure that a tattoo was replicated on a leg prosthesis so that the soldier could maintain his identity. Family members are brought into the soldiers’ care early, and everything from banking needs to transportation is thought of by the staff. The physical therapy area is not only state of the art but is used as a model in other hospitals all over the nation.

The namesake of the Center, Walter Reed, is worthy as a model for Army medicine. A brilliant student born in 1851, he is still, 160 years later, the youngest student to ever graduate medical school. He graduated at 17 years old. He joined the Army in 1875 for financial security and the opportunity to travel. He headed up a board responsible for finding a cause for typhoid fever, then a major problem for soldiers of the Spanish American War. He is most famous, however, for his work with yellow fever, which, according to the Army, “killed more soldiers than the enemy.” Walter Reed, at the time still also working on typhoid, became most famous for working with other physicians in proving that mosquitoes transmitted yellow fever. Army medicine had established itself as being at the forefront of American medicine.

It has not given up that role. In South Sudan, where the local peace committees work with cattle grazers in the Arab North to free slaves taken as war booty, a cow vaccine is used as payment. The developer of this vaccine was the U.S. Army, invited by the government of Kenya over 40 years ago to set up labs and work on the problem. Now, the Army labs in Kenya and Thailand are hard at work on developing an AIDs vaccine, and they are in clinical trials of the first malaria vaccine.

The closing ceremony last week was “bittersweet,” as many of the speakers said. Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, 42nd Army surgeon general and commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Command, talked about the history of the hospital and the men and women who served there. The hospital had some recent controversy, and Gen. Schoomaker was the “go to” guy to clean it up. He is a man with attention to detail and a heart of gold, a very caring physician married to a former Army nurse.

As the flags were brought forth and “cased” in their sleeves, the new flags were proudly shown. Gen. Schoomaker and others watched the closing of this great institution. The hospital will close, but the name will continue – and so will the care and the research that benefits all of us.

Patients are still there, and after the official closing ceremonies, the Doobie Brothers, arranged by the USO, treated the patients and staff to a concert. On the last day, patients will be transferred to Bethesda by ambulance. In military precision, they will leave the grounds of Walter Reed every three minutes till the last patient has been transferred.

I am liberal, and I am proud of Army medicine. With the likes of people such as Gen. Schookmaker and the men and women who devote their lives to taking care of our wounded warriors, there is much to be proud of.