WASHINGTON (Army News Service, August 29, 2011) -- The last patient left Walter Reed Army Medical Center Saturday following 17 other wounded warriors who traveled by ambulance to the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Md.
"It has been five years of preparation, but for me it's only been three," said Col. Norvell V. Coots, Walter Reed Healthcare System commander.
This was his third year in command of the hospital, the last two of which he and his staff finalized all the plans for the move to the hospitals at Fort Belvoir, Va., and the medical center at Bethesda.
"Even as recently as two weeks ago, we did another exercise and fine-tuned it even further because we initially planned on moving about 150 patients," said Coots.
But as they began moving many of those patients to facilities closer to their home, officials realized they would only be moving 18.
"This is a very smooth move. I don't want to say it's an easy move, but it gives the appearance of being easy, but that's because we drilled it, it's a very good plan, and it's being executed almost flawlessly," Coots said.
This isn't the first time patients at Walter Reed have made the move to a newer, better equipped facility.
What began in 1898 as Maj. Walter Reed's clinic in southwest
Washington, D.C., later became the U.S. Army Medical Treatment Facility where Reed underwent an emergency appendectomy, dying of complications in 1902.
Seven years later in 1909, 11 patients left that 50-bed hospital by horse-drawn wagons and an experimental steam-driven ambulance to the new 65-bed facility in the northern part of the capital.
Now, after serving the military community from the Washington area and around the world, the medical center has moved once more.
The last 18 patients rode about seven miles in gas-powered ambulances to what will soon be known as Walter Reed National Military Medical Center -- a hospital that began when President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened the gates in 1942 at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., once the flagship of the U.S. Navy.
"The legacy lives on because the name lives on and so it's a new day. And this is really a new beginning for the military health system," Coots said.
With Hurricane Irene approaching, he said he told the 17 chaplains at the hospital to pray a weather prayer to hold the storm off at least until after the flag was scheduled to come down at 3 p.m.
"September 15 is when the flag will finally come down over Walter Reed Army Medical Center," he said, emphasizing that will actually be the last time.
"But the flag we're bringing down today, when we say we're bringing down the flag, we really mean that Red Cross one (hanging in front of the facility) because that's the symbol of health and healing. It symbolizes an end to 102 years of physical patient care. But September 15 is the BRAC deadline, that's the actual date that the last flag comes down," Coots said, referring to the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure legislation which mandated the new joint facility.
On Saturday, people stood outside the gates to Walter Reed with American flags, as many of them have over the past six years, to honor the troops.
These former servicemembers -- belonging to groups such as Free Republic, Gathering of Eagles and America's Mighty Warriors -- did not go unnoticed or unappreciated by Coots and his staff.
Kimberly Hockman, a Navy veteran, and her mother, Heather Wilk, who was an Army medic from 1971 through 1973, said she comes from a long line of patriots.
"My brother served in Iraq, my uncles were in Vietnam and my real father was in Vietnam," Hockman said.
As the ambulances left Walter Reed for the very last time, they all waved their American flags and shouted, "Thank you for protecting us. We love you."
Coots walked out after the final ambulance left to shake the hands and salute these former servicemembers who said they will never forget the sacrifices made by the Soldiers entering their new quarters at Bethesda.
"It's kind of sad to see the gates close, but it's the beginning of a new chapter for the Army and the patients here," said Army Reserve Spc. Chad Longell of Fort Meade, Md.
Walter Reed inpatients move to Naval Medical Center in Maryland