FORT BENNING, Ga. - The public got a peek at the locale for Fort Benning's new hospital last week.

Army, post and civic leaders gathered Friday near the banks of Upatoi Creek for a groundbreaking ceremony at what will become the replacement for Martin Army Community Hospital in three years. The $350 million, 745,000-square-foot facility will be almost twice the size of the current hospital, which opened in 1958 and is the oldest in the Army inventory.

Dr. (Col.) Koji Nishimura, commander of the hospital and U.S. Army Medical Department Activity at Fort Benning, called the event an "occasion of promise and hope."

"We're hoping to create a wonderful, wonderful facility that not only meets today's needs but focuses on tomorrow's medicine as well," he said. "It's exciting to imagine this hospital will be filled someday with babies being born and lives being saved. ... Medicine has changed from a focus on inpatient care to outpatient care and preventive measures, and this new hospital fits that approach very well."

Engineers and MEDDAC officials say the facility will be an architectural icon that incorporates the latest technological advances in medical facilities and equipment, improves efficiencies and elevates the quality of care for Soldiers, veterans and their families.

Site and foundation work has already begun on 65 acres adjacent to the present Martin Army Community Hospital complex on Marne Road. Construction should be completed by January 2014 and be ready for patients that September.

"It's going to be an incredible facility," said Dr. (Lt. Gen.) Eric Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general. "It will be a physically impressive structure, but concrete, glass and steel are not really what Army medicine is all about. We place the health of our beneficiaries at the center of all we do."

U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr., D-Ga., was instrumental in securing funding three years ago to replace the old Fort Benning hospital, the general said.

"Today, we begin a new chapter in the life of Martin Army Community Hospital," Bishop told the audience. "When we ask our service members to put themselves in harm's way to protect our freedom, we have an obligation to provide them with the best resources and facilities when they come home. We want to make this the finest military hospital in our Army. ... They deserve it. We intend for them to have it."

The Savannah District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is managing the design-build project. It awarded the contract to Turner Construction Company Inc. of Huntsville, Ala., and its design partner, Ellerbe Becket of New York.

"We've assembled a great team to construct the new hospital," said Col. Jeffrey Hall, the Savannah District commander. "We look forward to building the quality facility our Soldiers and their families deserve."

Turner Construction has completed more than 600 major health-care projects, according to the company's website. The firm also engineered some famous American sports and entertainment venues, including Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Marty Miller, a project executive for Turner, said landscaped courtyards, untouched woodlands and nature scenes will make up the backdrop for patients and visitors at Fort Benning.

"It's going to be an absolutely beautiful hospital - just look at the view," he said. "It really brings the outdoors into the facility to aid in the healing process."

In cooperation with the Veterans Benefits Association and Veterans Health Association, Martin Army Community Hospital recently began admitting veterans for inpatient medical care, cataract and laser surgery, Nishimura said. It's working to expand those functions to behavioral health, general surgery and optometry services.

Officials said discussions are under way about possibly converting the current MACH into a Veterans Affairs hospital someday, but no decisions have been made.

"We are all veterans. Everyone in uniform is a veteran," Nishimura said. "We're here to take care of all our fellow Soldiers (and) service members who served the country so bravely, so we will do whatever it takes to look after them and their families."


Inside the new hospital

The new Martin Army Community Hospital will cost about $350 million and take three years to build. The 745,000-square-foot, six-story facility will feature 70 inpatient beds, 24 medical-surgical beds, 14 mother-baby beds and 24 psychiatric beds.

The blueprint was drawn up for two wings Aca,!" an outpatient clinic and hospital section Aca,!" and equipped with twin parking garages, one for staff and another for patients and visitors. Overall, parking will double from about 1,000 to 2,000 spaces.

The hospitalAca,!a,,cs new intensive care unit will contain eight rooms that could hold up to 24 adjustable beds. The surgical suite includes five general operating rooms, an orthopedic operating room and two endoscopy rooms. The emergency room will expand to more than 16,000 square feet.

Court action delays groundbreaking

Groundbreaking for the new Martin Army Community Hospital could have taken place last fall Aca,!" if not for months of legal wrangling over the bidding process.

In September 2009, the Savannah District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers handed out a $333.4 million contract to Turner Construction Company of Huntsville, Ala., and its design partner, Ellerbe Becket of New York. Site preparation began, but the Corps halted work in late February 2010 after the Government Accountability Office upheld two conflict-of-interest protests it received earlier that month. The GAO recommended Turner and Ellerbe Becket be eliminated from consideration and the Corps make a new award.

In March 2010, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would comply, which put the hospital project in limbo. Turner then launched a court challenge.

Last July, Judge Bohdan A. Futey of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims sided with Turner by granting a permanent injunction and ordering the Corps to restore the original contract and not seek out another firm.

Aca,!" Vince Little