'Home of Warrior Care' Hits Century Mark

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 1, 2009 - Walter Reed Army Medical Center opened its doors here 100 years ago today as an 80-bed facility at a time of U.S. peace.

"There was no ceremony, no dedication and no fanfare," Walter Reed historian Sherman Fleek said. "Medical treatment and care commenced quietly."

Not long after, the hospital swelled with World War I casualties suffering from head injuries, amputations, mustard gas exposure and other injuries. The Army's "Home of Warrior Care" expanded to as many as 2,500 beds as veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam returned home wounded.

In recent times, the Defense Department's largest military hospital has adapted to the needs of war-injured servicemembers from the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the broader fight against extremism. Today, the 247-bed center is one of the world's foremost medical facilities, Army officials said, with 60 outpatient clinics and 16 operating rooms and a staff that combines patient care, teaching and research.

Army Col. (Dr.) Norvell V. Coots, commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System, said the medical center staff learns something new about military health care from each of the soldiers it treats.

"When you add it all together, these individual nuances in a soldier's treatment, his or her medical or surgical care, their special technology needs, and the impact on family members and loved ones, all teach us invaluable lessons in patient care," he said in an e-mailed response to questions.

The Military Advanced Training Center, a recently added 31,000-square-foot rehabilitation center and gym with a nearly $9 million price tag, is one example of the hospital responding to soldiers' needs.

Since it opened in September 2007, troops who have undergone amputations have used the center's computer- and video-monitoring systems, infrared camera-assisted motion analysis and other sophisticated technology to help them adapt to new prosthetic limbs.

On the center's bottom floor last week, a young Afghanistan war veteran inside the mirror-lined workout area stood on a prosthetic leg as he finished sets on a weight machine.

Army Sgt. Joshua Ben was a cavalry scout with the 82nd Airborne Division deployed to Kabul in late 2007 when he encountered a massive ambush. Ben was told some 300 insurgents had been hiding in the tree line, waiting for his convoy.

"We had four trucks patrolling through this one town, and we hit a straight gravel road that was about four miles long," he recalled. "My truck took nine [rocket-propelled grenades]. The first one came through the door and took my leg off."

The sergeant also was shot eight times, with his protective equipment absorbing the blows of six rounds. He was one of a dozen soldiers in the 18-man unit to suffer wounds.

Ben, who plans to use the GI Bill to earn an undergraduate degree in forensic science, now is an outpatient who lives at Walter Reed's Mologne House and is part of a warrior transition brigade ? a regimented recovery infrastructure designed to ease the healing process.

"It's gone pretty good," he said of his time at the hospital. "It's just all about the recovery. Physical therapy every day, and going to appointments."

Walter Reed, however, has not always enjoyed such favorable reports regarding its outpatient care.

In early 2007, the Washington Post published a series of articles that shed light on poor conditions at the hospital's facilities, describing America's wounded warrior outpatients living in moldy rooms laden with belly-up cockroaches and stained carpets, and soldiers forced to face a cumbersome bureaucracy at the hospital.

In the wake of the reports, a bipartisan panel was tasked to fix problems with wounded servicemembers' care. Since then, the hospital has implemented a series of sweeping reforms amid what Coots referred to as the "era of opportunity."

During this period, the Army launched the Warrior Transition System, which assigns a primary care manager, nurse case manager and squad leader to each of the wounded. Among other initiatives, the hospital now boasts the Soldier Family Assistance Center and a primary care clinic that exclusively treats those recently injured.

"So many great initiatives have developed out of that crisis," Coots said via e-mail. "National and military leadership from around the world come to Walter Reed to see and earn about all of the great things that are being done in this world-class facility."

Army Maj. Walter Reed, who earned his first medical degree in 1869 at the age of 17, is best known for leading a research team to the watershed discovery that mosquitoes were responsible for transmitting yellow fever. The hospital that bears his name continues the quest for medical breakthroughs.

The medical center is at the forefront of research covering post-traumatic stress disorder and other emotional and mental manifestations of the war experience, Coots said.

"It has always been a place for research, and through all of these years, great advances in the science and application of medicine have been made by notable staff members," Coots said. "War has always been the motivator behind rapid advances in clinical care and medical technology, and that is certainly no different now."

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