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Casing of colors marks close of Walter Reed hospital

By Wendell Marsh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army's chief medical facility, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, retired its ceremonial flags on Wednesday, as it closes its historic facility after more than a century of treating wounded American fighters and presidents.

The complex in northwest Washington near the Maryland border shifts most of its operations in August and finally shuts its doors on September 15 as a part of a consolidation with the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

The new facility will be called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and will have campuses in Bethesda and Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

"The ceremony is not a closing, but a transition of the organization to the next iteration of what we call 'Borden's Dream,' so named after the Army Doctor who had the vision to create the first Walter Reed General Hospital," Colonel Norvell Coots, Commander of the Walter Reed Health Care System, said in a statement.

"But for the people who make Walter Reed the magical place that it is, this will be an emotional closure as we shut down this campus after more than 102 years of service to the nation," Coots said.

Over 1,000 people attended the "casing of the colors" ceremony where the flag of the unit was taken down and put into a protective covering, marking the unit's inactivation, according a spokesman.

Current patients will be moved to the new campus in late August. The consolidation is a part of a 2005 measure to cut costs and address aging facilities.

In 2007, an embarrassing Washington Post investigation found that recuperating soldiers at the hospital were living in a dilapidated building infested with mice, mold and cockroaches.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush and senior defense officials had repeatedly visited the wounded in the hospital to show their concern for those who served in battle. Walter Reed has treated some 18,000 troops that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bush said that while most of the people working at the hospital were dedicated professionals, "some of our troops at Walter Reed have experienced bureaucratic delays and living conditions that are less than they deserve."

Dwight Eisenhower, who suffered from heart problems while in office, was among the U.S. presidents and other political leaders treated at Walter Reed. Army Generals John J. Pershing and Douglas MacArthur were also treated at the hospital.

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