WASHINGTON – The military base closure commission voted Thursday to close the nation’s best-known military hospital, Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Historic Walter Reed, the Army’s premier hospital, has treated presidents, foreign dignitaries and thousands of soldiers wounded in combat, including hundreds maimed over the last three years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The move, sought by the Pentagon, was part of a larger scheme to consolidate medical training among the military services.

In the steady stream of votes that eventually will affect thousands of lives, local economies and the future shape of the military, the decision to close Walter Reed will likely be among the commission’s most notable actions.

The proposal the nine commissioners approved will shift the medical center’s doctors, nurses, researchers and staff four miles away to nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, where a new facility will be constructed, and to a hospital at Ft. Belvoir in Virginia, about 20 miles south of the capital.

The Pentagon had recommended closing the venerable hospital, where former President Dwight Eisenhower died in 1969 and Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur died in 1964.

Heritage aside, Defense Department planners argued that the cost of needed improvements at Walter Reed was far greater than the expense of building a new center.

Before their 8-0 vote, several commission members expressed similar concerns that Walter Reed’s 113-acre campus of Georgian brick buildings near the northern tip of the District of Columbia was slipping as a modern medical facility, especially one that was treating a large number of soldiers who had lost limbs in the Iraq and Afghan wars.

“Whatever it costs, we need to incur that cost to provide care to an extraordinary group of men and women who will be in harm’s way,” said Anthony Principi, chairman of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. “The kids coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan all deserve the best care.”

The Pentagon estimated the cost of moving the Walter Reed operations to a newly constructed facility on the Bethesda grounds and to the Ft. Belvoir hospital at nearly $1 billion.

But the Army estimates it will save more than $300 million over the next 20 years by closing, rather than renovating, Walter Reed.

Walter Reed employs 2,525 military personnel, 2,370 civilian staff members and 234 students, some of whom will move to the new facilities.

The new facility will bear Walter Reed’s name but function as a national military medical center, rather than a unit run by the Army or Navy.

The commission is considering Pentagon recommendations to close or combine nearly 800 military bases and offices, 33 of which are considered major installations that the Pentagon has recommended be shut down.

The commission spent three months visiting bases slated for closure or “realignment” and began to vote on the list of facilities Wednesday. Expected to complete its hearings Friday, the panel must present its recommendations to President Bush by Sept. 8. Bush can make changes to the list before it goes to Congress for a single up or down vote.

If followed to the letter, the Pentagon said its planned closings and realignments would save nearly $50 billion over the next two decades.

On Wednesday, however, the commission reversed the Defense Department’s proposals to close several large bases, while voting to close a number of larger Army and Navy installations.

In a second round of discussions and votes Thursday, the commission for the most part sided with the Pentagon plan to consolidate a number of facilities that are considered headquarters staff and specialty centers, such as those for intelligence gathering and medical services.

The commission Friday planned to take up another issue that has drawn strong objections from some governors – an Air Force proposal to consolidate Air National Guard units that will affect more than 50 facilities. About half that number would shrink or be closed under the plan, with the other sites growing.

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-08-25-05 2029EDT

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