Walter Reed Medical Center closes in bittersweet ceremony Wednesday

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In letters to her, he described stinky bedpans, a "new inmate" moving into his ward, a "celebrity of the week" visit from "Tricky Dick Nixon," practical jokes played on student nurses, a champagne party for a triple amputee's 26th birthday, and how the orderlies turned patients' beds near a window around so they could watch Johnson enter the hospital to visit Eisenhower.

Walter Reed will close in September. (Photo: Associated Press)

"Mike always had a wonderful sense of humor, but I think they kind of all aspired to have a sense of humor, those guys who had lost their limbs who didn't know what their lives were going to be like getting out. I think they had a camaraderie and a sense of humor and an optimism about themselves, if not about life in general," said Lehigh, 63, in a telephone interview from Kalamazoo, Mich.

Despite all the warm feelings, a Washington Post investigation in 2007 uncovered shoddy living conditions in an outpatient ward known as Building 18. Troops were living among black mold and mouse droppings while trying to fend for themselves as they battled a complex bureaucracy of paperwork related to the disability evaluation system.

The report drew scrutiny of all aspects of care offered to the nation's wounded. The scandal embarrassed the Army and the Bush administration, and led to the firings of some military leaders.

Afterward, some in Congress pushed for the Pentagon to change course and keep Walter Reed open, but an independent group reviewed the idea and recommended moving forward with Walter Reed's closure plans.

It concluded that the Defense Department was or should have been aware of the widespread problems but neglected them because they knew Walter Reed was scheduled to be closed. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates agreed, and said there was little wisdom in pouring money into Walter Reed to keep it open indefinitely.

"Far better to make an investment in brand-new, 21st-century facilities," Gates told reporters.

Pierce said the quality of medical care at Walter Reed didn't suffer, even leading up to the scandal.

"It was administrative issues and housing issues, and the housing issues were significant. I don't think anyone would want to say they weren't and it shouldn't have happened, but it was not a quality of care situation," Pierce said.

In addition to improved living conditions, one of the other upgrades after the scandal was the opening of an advanced rehabilitation center for troops with amputations. On a recent day, several amputees, including some who had lost three limbs, were exercising in the room, one even on a skateboard.

Marine Sgt. Rob Jones, 25, is a double amputee from the Afghanistan war who spends much of his days rowing. His goal is to become an FBI agent or make the U.S. Adaptive Rowing Team.

One of more than 440 troops from the recent wars getting outpatient care, he sat on a bench outside the center reading a book. His prosthetics were visible below his shorts.

"I'll probably just remember the people I was working with, the staff here, how much they helped me get back on my feet." Jones said.

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