July 27, 2011— -- Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Washington, D.C., hospital that has treated the country's war-wounded for more than a century, is closing its doors.
Although the historic redbrick, pillared building six miles from the White House will stay, Walter Reed's operations will move to a new location in Bethesda, Md., that will consolidate three military hospitals.
The move, which has been planned since 2005 to cut costs, will take place throughout August. But patients and staff will say goodbye at a ceremony on the grounds today.
Since it was built in 1909, the small hospital with an 80-bed capacity has grown to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of troops who served in World War II, Vietnam, Korea and, most recently, Iraq and Afghanistan. The now 5,500-room facility currently treats about 775,000 outpatients each year, including veterans and their families.
Staff Sgt. John Kriesel woke up at Walter Reed in December 2006, eight days after losing both his legs, as well as two of his platoon mates, in an improvised explosive device -- IED -- blast in Fallujah, Iraq. No one expected him to survive, he said. But the doctors and nurses at Walter Reed not only brought him back from the brink, they taught him how to forge a new life.
"They help me turn a tragedy into a positive situation," said Kriesel, now a Republican member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and book author. "They teach you that your life's not over; it's just beginning."
Kriesel spent nine months at the hospital, where then-President George W. Bush pinned a Purple Heart on his hospital gown in front of his wife and two young sons.
"When I first woke up from my coma, the nurses asked me if I wanted anything. I told them I would like to meet the president," said Kriesel, describing the uncertain smiles and nods he got from his medical team. "But they made it happen."
Many of the nation's most heroic and influential people have visited Walter Reed. President Dwight Eisenhower died there, and a black-and-white photo from 1960 showed Sen. Lyndon Johnson visiting Richard Nixon, vice president at the time, who was treated for a staph infection.
But Walter Reed's reputation as a state-of-the-art hospital for privates and presidents alike came under fire with a 2007 investigation by the Washington Post, which uncovered unlivable conditions and a failure to ease rehabilitated veterans back into civilian life.
According to the Post, more than five years of sustained battle had "transformed the venerable 113-acre institution into something else entirely -- a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients." Black mold and mouse droppings adorned the now infamous outpatient ward, Building 18. And bureaucratic red tape delayed discharges, leaving patients in limbo before they returned home or to active duty.
The Post's findings spurred a government investigation and the firing of some top military leaders. They also led to improved military medicine at Walter Reed and elsewhere. But plans to close Walter Reed's campus in the nation's capital would still move forward, with then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates telling reporters, "Far better to make an investment in brand-new, 21st-century facilities."
Walter Reed Closing: Patients, Staff Say Goodbye
The closure marks an emotional end for patients, families and staff, many of whom lost loved ones, and some of whom found love within Walter Reed's white walls. During the Vietnam War, some nurses were said to have married their patients. And many children of heroes were born there.
"It's not the newest, nicest, shiniest building there is," said Kriesel, who was at Walter Reed during the 2007 scandal. "I was pissed because they made it sound like the majority of people weren't getting good care. But those doctors, those nurses, they chose to go to Walter Reed to help warriors come back and heal and lead normal lives. I wouldn't be the person I am today if it weren't for them putting me back together after I was hurt."
Kriesel visits his medical team, which he calls his family, once a year. Although he's sad to see the old hospital close, he said he's looks forward to visiting his family at their new digs in Bethesda.
"I love those people, and I can't thank them enough for what they do," he said.
The new facility, called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, opens in September. The State Department and the District of Columbia will take over the Washington campus Sept. 15.
The Associate Press contributed to this story.