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Base-Closing Commission Agrees to Close Walter Reed

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- A federal commission voted to close the crown jewel of Army hospitals as it began its second day of decision-making on sweeping plans to restructure military bases across the country.

Located in the nation's capital, century-old Walter Reed Army Medical Center has treated presidents and foreign leaders as well as veterans and soldiers, including those returning from the Iraq war.

Most of Walter Reed's work would be relocated to a more modern, expanded hospital in Bethesda, Md., that will be renamed Walter Reed in a nod to the old facility's heritage.

The nine-member panel was voting on a host of big-ticket items in its second day of votes. Later Thursday it was to begin debating the Air Force's plans, arguably the most contentious of the group, as it steamrolled through hundreds of Pentagon proposals at a brisk pace after four months of study and preparation.

Under the Walter Reed plan, most of the staff and services would move from the old hospital's main post to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, to create the expanded facility. The remaining personnel and operations would move to a community hospital at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.

The Pentagon calls this "jointness" -- the services combining their strengths rather than working separately, part of an ambitious effort to save money by streamlining support services across the armed forces. Walter Reed's care is considered first-rate but the facility is showing its age, the commission found.

"Kids coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, all of them in harm's way, deserve to come back to 21st-century medical care," Commission Chairman Anthony Principi said Thursday, adding that the hospital is old. "It needs to be modernized."

One-time costs, including construction and renovations, would total $989 million. The Pentagon would save $301 million over 20 years, the commission said. The current hospital has about 185 beds, but the expanded facility would have 340.

Principi said he expected to finish all voting no later than Friday, a day earlier than planned. The commission must send its final report to President Bush by Sept. 8.

The president can accept it, reject it, or send it back to the commission for revisions. Congress also will have a chance to veto the plan in its entirety but it has not taken that step in four previous rounds of base closings. If ultimately approved, the changes would occur over the next six years.

On Wednesday, the panel breezed through proposals to shutter hundreds of small and large facilities in all corners of the country, and, ahead of schedule, began taking up recommendations that would streamline support, education, training and medical services across the military branches.

After finishing those joint-service proposals, the commission was moving next to the Air Force plan, much of which includes recommendations to shake up the Air National Guard, a highly controversial effort. The Air Force also proposes closing both Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico.

"We're doing some very large muscle movements," Gen. Gary Heckman, a top Air Force official who helped lead the service's base-closing analysis team, said in an interview.

He said his service branch wasn't hit in previous rounds of closures as hard as the Army and Navy because overhauling the Air Force's structure -- which is what has been proposed this time around -- is very difficult.

Ellsworth's proposed closing has caused the most political consternation because Sen. John Thune, a freshman senator, had argued during the 2004 campaign that he -- rather his Democratic opponent, then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle -- would be in a better position to save the facility. Nonetheless, it showed up on the Pentagon's closure list.

Closing Cannon would cost Clovis, N.M., a small town on the Texas-New Mexico line, nearly 3,000 jobs.

Overall, the Pentagon has proposed closing or consolidating a record 62 major military bases and 775 smaller installations to save $48.8 billion over 20 years, streamline the services and reposition the armed forces.

Since the Pentagon announced its proposal in May, commissioners had voiced concerns about several parts of it, including the estimate of how much money would be saved.

By far, the most controversy -- both on the commission and off -- has surrounded the Air Force.

Most of its proposals cover the Air National Guard and would shift people, equipment and aircraft around at 54 or more sites where Guard units are stationed.

Aircraft would be taken away from 25 Air National Guard units. Instead of flying missions, those units would get other missions such as expeditionary combat support roles. They also would retain their state missions of aiding governors during civil disturbances and natural disasters.

Several states have sued to stop the shake-up, the commission itself has voiced concern that the plan would compromise homeland security, and the Justice Department was brought in to settle arguments over whether the Pentagon could relocate Air National Guard units without a governor's consent. The ruling said it could.

The Pentagon says as a package, the Air Force proposals represent an effort to reshape the service branch into a more effective fighting force by consolidating both weapons systems and personnel, given that it will have a smaller but smarter aircraft fleet in the future.


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(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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