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Where Generations Of Soldiers Healed And Moved On

Tyson Quink exercises at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Quink, a former college football player, lost both of his legs three months into his deployment to Afghanistan. (NPR)

On a recent morning, John Pierce walked across the sprawling hospital campus of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. On the lawn, he spotted people who have come to define the place in recent years.

"[They were] having physical fitness-type tests," Pierce said. "There were people with notebooks and things, like they record when you do your sit-ups and pushups — but these were a number of double amputees."

Pierce is the historian for the Walter Reed Society, which makes him an expert on the historic American hospital in Washington, D.C.

The last doctors and patients are leaving, as the center closes. They're moving elsewhere as part of a round of base closures — a huge development for the U.S. military.

Maj. Reed's Medical Innovations

Walking into Walter Reed's old hospital building feels like going back in time, as the building changes from concrete and glass to brick and radiators.

Atop one fireplace in the hospital sits a bust of an Army doctor, Maj. Walter Reed. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, Reed served as a troubleshooter for the surgeon general.

Reed led an investigation into typhoid — which killed more soldiers than bullets did during the war. Many young soldiers were dying before they even reached the battlefield.

Reed concluded that fewer people would catch typhoid if Army camps had better hygiene and sanitation. He saved even more lives when he performed experiments proving that mosquitoes spread yellow fever.

Since it opened in 1909, the hospital named for Reed has had many famous patients.

One wood-paneled room is named for Gen. John J. Pershing, the American commander in World War I. The Pershing Suite is not your ordinary hospital room: The seats include leather armchairs, including one with a plush, high back.

Pershing lived out his last years on the campus, close to his doctors.

"Several of the Army leaders who were young soldiers in World War I, who had worked for Pershing, came by here to see him before they went off to war in World War II," Pierce said. "Gen. George S. Patton came to this room to see Pershing, got down on his knees on this rug — and had Pershing bless him before he went off to war."

Several presidents also received medical treatment at Walter Reed. So as a historian, it's frustrating to Pierce that as the hospital closes, many Americans know it mainly for a scandal.

Fallout From Poor Conditions

In 2007, patients suffered from bad housing and tangled bureaucracy.

"It had nothing to do with patient care," Pierce said. "It was housing of the soldiers, and it had to do with the administrative processes of either assessing their disability or releasing them from active duty. No patient care was called into question, but the reputation of the whole facility was called into question."

The Army moved to improve conditions, and the medical center has spent its final years managing a sobering fact of warfare — better battlefield care means more wounded troops survive.

That means more mutilated survivors have come to Walter Reed, to a room where we met Col. Gregory Gadson.

"[This room is called] MATC. It's an abbreviation: the Military Advanced Training Center," said Gadson, who runs a program for wounded soldiers. "I like to call it the Gold's Gym of guys that are missing things."

There, men who have lost arms and legs work out on exercise machines. Gadson knows their experience because in 2007, he was struck by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

"When I arrived here at Walter Reed, I still had both of my legs," Gadson said. "They were in very poor condition. And ultimately, one week after I was here, they had to take my left leg to save my life."

Then he decided to let the doctors take his right leg, which was never likely to heal. He has since learned to walk on artificial legs and bionic knees.

The MATC room is in its last days of operation.

"It's obviously got a sentimental place for me because this place, and these doctors more importantly, and the medical staff here saved my life," Gadson said.

But the first thing that strikes the eye upon walking into the MATC room is not that there are guys missing limbs — but that there are guys missing limbs who have their families with them, all doing therapy together.

"A lot of times, when people think of a wounded soldier or service member, they just think of that individual," Gadson explained. "But you know, really, that whole family's wounded. That's a lifestyle change for the whole family."

A Couple Working Together

The people undergoing therapy include an Army first lieutenant, Tyson Quink, and his wife, Tera. Tyson, a platoon leader, lost both of his legs below the knee to a bomb in Afghanistan.

That was in June. Now, Tyson has had one silvery artificial calf and foot attached, which he uses to pedal an exercise machine.

"It's a hard thing to adjust to at first. You're so used to having it," he said. "I was 6-foot-3, and getting cut down to like 5-foot-something, having to look up to people from a chair, is not something I'm used to."

Quink said he's waiting for his right lower leg to heal enough that doctors can fit him with a second artificial leg.

He's strong enough that he can work the exercise machine while talking — with two hands and one foot — without getting out of breath.

"It's real humbling being here, too, because you see people who have multiple amputations, more than you, or, you know, have the same — missing their legs, but ... way higher," he said. "And you see how much more difficult it is for them in their day-to-day life."

It makes him feel lucky, he says, to have only lost both legs below the knee.

Quink was once a football player at West Point — which is where he met his wife, Tera, who is also a lieutenant. She's been living with him at the hospital, guiding him through a blizzard of therapy sessions and doctor's appointments.

"The blast caused a mild TBI — which is a traumatic brain injury," Tera said. "It's basically a really good hit that you probably would have gotten from football. But his short-term memory's not all there, so I just kind of go to make sure that he remembers everything, and I'm there to support him."

When Tera sometimes has to remind him of a recent event, "I'm like, 'That did not happen!' " Tyson laughed. "But it's ... I just give in, because I know I don't know for sure. And being on drugs, and having 14 or 15 surgeries, you don't remember everything."

After Walter Reed, Moving On

Before his injury, Tyson Quink said, he didn't imagine he would have a long career in the Army. He wanted to have his own command, and then get out. He said he wanted to have a simple life.

"Maybe be a teacher and coach some high school football, and live with my dog and my wife, and have some kids," he said.

But even with his injury, he said, "There's a lot of options."

As the Walter Reed Army Medical Center closes, the Quinks will be moving to a separate facility in Maryland. They're among the very last of the thousands of American troops who've been treated at this hospital center for a century.

They are working to reconstruct their lives, and to follow in the footsteps of a U.S. Marine who's been at the center longer — and who stopped by to share a laugh.

The Marine also lost both legs below the knee. He wears athletic shoes on his new metal feet.

He stood, unaided. And as he talked to the Quinks, he flexed his knees and bounced in the air, three times.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, host:

Over the weekend, just ahead of Hurricane Irene, the last patients departed the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The hospital is moving elsewhere, consolidated with another facility as part of a round of base closing.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On one of the center's last days of service, Dr. John Pierce spotted people on the lawn, people who came to define this place in recent years.

Dr. JOHN PIERCE (Historian, Walter Reed Society): Well, they were having physical fitness-type tests. There were people with notebooks and things like they record when you do your sit-ups and pushups, but these were a number of double amputees.

INSKEEP: Pierce is the historian of the Walter Reed Society, which makes him an expert on a historic American hospital. Its closing is a huge development for the U.S. military, as we'll hear in the coming days. We begin with the story of this sprawling hospital campus.

Where have we just walked into?

Dr. PIERCE: This is the old hospital building.

INSKEEP: We've gone back in time. We've gone from concrete and glass to brick and radiators.

Dr. PIERCE: That's right.

INSKEEP: We stopped at a fireplace, topped by a bust of an Army doctor, Major Walter Reed.

Dr. PIERCE: At the time of the Spanish-American War in 1898, he was a troubleshooter for the surgeon general, so to speak. He had him become a director of a board to look at typhoid. Typhoid had been a major problem in the Spanish-American War. More young soldiers died of typhoid than got killed by bullets in the war.

INSKEEP: They started dying before they even got to the battle.

Dr. PIERCE: Died before they got there.

INSKEEP: The doctor, in the old-style blue Army uniform, concluded that fewer people would catch typhoid if Army camps had better hygiene and sanitation. He saved more lives when he performed experiments proving that mosquitoes spread yellow fever. The hospital named for Walter Reed has had many famous patients since it opened in 1908.

We have stepped into a wood-paneled room here. This is not your ordinary hospital room - leather chairs, high backs chair over there.

It's the Pershing Suite, named for General John J. Pershing, the American commander in World War I. He lived his last years right here, close to his doctors.

Dr. PIERCE: Several of the Army leaders who were young soldiers in World War I who had worked for Pershing came by here to see him before they went off to war in World War II.

INSKEEP: What leaders do you mean?

Dr. PIERCE: General George S. Patton came to this room to see Pershing, got down on his knees on this rug, and had Pershing bless him before he went off to war.

INSKEEP: Several presidents received medical treatment at Walter Reed. So it's frustrating to historian John Pierce that as this hospital closes, many Americans know it mainly for a scandal. In 2007, patients suffered from bad housing and tangled bureaucracy.

Dr. PIERCE: It had nothing to do with patient care. It was housing of the soldiers, and it had to do with the administrative processes of either assessing their disability or releasing them from active duty. No patient care was called into question, but the reputation of the whole facility was called into question.

INSKEEP: The Army moved to improve conditions, and this medical center has spent its final years managing a sobering fact of warfare - better battlefield care means that more wounded troops survive. And that means more mutilated survivors have come to Walter Reed, to a room where we met Colonel Gregory Gadson.

Colonel GREGORY GADSON (U.S. Army): We're in the MATC. It's an abbreviation -the Military Advanced Training Center. I call it the Gold's Gym of guys that are missing things.

INSKEEP: Men who've lost arms and legs work out on exercise machines. Colonel Gadson knows their experience because he runs a program to advocate for wounded soldiers, and because in 2007 he was struck by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

Col. GADSON: When I arrived here at Walter Reed, I still had both my legs. Again, they were in very poor condition. And ultimately, one week after I was here, they had to take my left leg to save my life.

INSKEEP: Then he decided to let the doctors take his other leg, which was never likely to heal. He has since learned to walk on artificial legs and bionic knees. He practiced in rooms like the one we're visiting now, which is in its last days of operation.

Col. GADSON: It's obviously got a sentimental place for me, because this place and these doctors, more importantly, and the medical staff here, saved my life.

INSKEEP: Can I just say, walking in the first thing that strikes my eye is not that there are guys missing limbs - 'cause I expected that - but that there are families of guys missing limbs. There are whole families here that are doing therapy together. What's happening?

Col. GADSON: Well, you know, it's, you know, a lot of times when people think of a wounded soldier or service member, they just think of that individual. But you know, really, that whole family's wounded. That's a lifestyle change for the whole family.

INSKEEP: And the people undergoing therapy here include an Army first lieutenant and his wife, Tyson and Tera Quink. Tyson Quink was a platoon leader when he lost both his legs below the knee to a bomb in Afghanistan. It happened two months ago in June. Now he's had one silvery artificial calf and foot attached, and he uses it to pedal an exercise machine.

Lieutenant TYSON QUINK (U.S. Army): It's a hard thing to adjust to at first. You're so used to having it. I was 6'3", and getting cut down to like five-foot-something, having to look up to people from a chair, is not something I'm used to.

INSKEEP: Lieutenant Quink says he's waiting for his right lower leg to heal enough that doctors can fit him out with a second artificial leg.

He's strong enough that he works the exercise machine the whole time we're talking - two hands, one foot - and never needs to catch his breath.

Lt. QUINK: It's real humbling being here too, because you see people who have multiple amputations, more than you, or you know, have the same - missing their legs, but, you know, way higher. And you see how much how much more difficult it is for them in day-to-day life.

INSKEEP: Meaning that you feel like a lucky guy sort of - only lost both legs below the knee.

Lt. QUINK: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Lieutenant Quink was once a football player at West Point, which is where he met his wife. Tera Quink is also a lieutenant. She's been living with him here at the hospital, guiding him through a blizzard of therapy sessions and doctors appointments.

Lieutenant TERA QUINK (U.S. Army): The blast caused like a mild T.B.I., which is a traumatic brain injury - basically, a really good hit that you probably would have gotten from football. But his short-term memory's not all there, so I just kind of go to make sure that he remembers everything, and I'm there to support him.

Lt. TYSON QUINK: I'm like, I do not - that did not happen. But, you know, I just give in, because I know I don't know for sure. And being on drugs, and having 14, 15 surgeries, you don't remember everything.

INSKEEP: Did you imagine before this injury that you'd have a career, I mean a long career in the Army?

Lt. TY. QUINK: No. I wanted to do command originally and then get out. It wasn't something I wanted to do. I wanted to lead a simple life and, you know, maybe a teacher and coach some high school football, and live with my dog and my wife and have some kids.

INSKEEP: You can still do all that, I imagine.

Lt. TY. QUINK: Yeah, I mean there's a lot of options.

INSKEEP: The Quinks are amongst the last of the thousands of Americans treated at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. At a new facility in Maryland, they will continue to reconstruct their lives. They want to follow in the footsteps of a U.S. Marine who's been recovering longer and who stops by to share a laugh with them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: This Marine also lost both legs below the knee. He wears athletic shoes on his new metal feet. He is standing, unaided. And as they talk, he flexes his knees and bounces in the air three times.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: There's a lot more to the story of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Tomorrow, we'll hear what happens to the hospital property, a vast stretch of suddenly vacant real estate in a major city.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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