- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

“Life as we knew it is passing away, and something new is emerging to take its place,” writes spiritual author Marianne Williamson in “The Gift of Change: Spiritual Guidance for a Radically New Life.”

Ms. Williamson suggests that “the spiritual meaning of every situation [is] not what happens to us, but what we do with what happens to us and who we decide to become because of what happens to us. The only real failure is the failure to grow from what we go through.”

Gloria J. Smith, 48, a supply technician at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for 23 years, says, “I deal with change all the time.” She is accustomed to being reassigned and learning new skills. But a number of her co-workers, especially older workers who have had the same job for decades are “comfortable and don’t like to change.”

“They are panicking,” she said, because of the growing probability that historic Walter Reed will be closed.

Yesterday, a calm and collected Ms. Smith, who sees “no reason to worry yet,” joined her office mates around a radio to listen for news from the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which placed the Northwest military landmark on the chopping block. The plan is to move its staff and operations to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

“You can bet there was constant conversation,” Ms. Smith said of the hours after a co-worker’s daughter called to inform them of a television report.

“There were a lot of opinions expressed. Some think it won’t happen. Some think if it does, what will happen to us? And one lady came in and said, ‘Don’t get upset yet,’” said Ms. Smith, who lives in Lanham. “A lot is still in the air because we were told it still has to go through the process before there is a final decision. We still don’t know.”

BRAC voted unanimously to close what it characterized as the “old and underused” Walter Reed — and to relocate thousands of military workers in Arlington and Alexandria as well in its politically charged efforts to close 180 military installations nationwide. In part, the estimated $49 billion savings in 20 years will offset costs for ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I’m not so worried about my job, I’m worried about the soldiers and the military personnel. Where are they going to go?” Ms. Smith said. She disputed BRAC’s contention, saying the Bethesda facility is focused on research while Walter Reed is focused and known for its specialized services for wounded soldiers and on training military personnel.

“We’re wondering why the base will be closed when they spent money fixing it up,” she said.

New buildings, including a barracks for young military families, have been built in recent months. Several older structures were renovated, she said. And, the main building is a historic structure where presidents, foreign dignitaries and wounded soldiers from several wars have been treated.

“I believe there will always be some kind of building with the name Walter Reed on it here,” she said.

Under BRAC’s plans, most of Walter Reed’s operations, however, will be moved to Bethesda or a new hospital at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County. At least 3,700 military and 1,000 civilian personnel, like Ms. Smith, face major changes in their day-to-day lives should the base commission’s recommendations ultimately be accepted by President Bush and Congress.

One reason Ms. Smith said she isn’t panicking is because employees were told in a staff meeting earlier this summer that it will take at least a decade to close down Walter Reed.

“By that time, everybody at Walter Reed now will either be retired or dead,” said Ms. Smith, who is slated to retire in seven years.

D.C. leaders and residents expressed some disappointment and sorrow when they learned Walter Reed will be closed. Nostalgia aside, they must redirect their efforts to make sure the city obtains a large piece, if not all, of that lucrative acreage bordering the old-line “Gold Coast” for future redevelopment.

This closure change, if it must be, presents an opportunity for the District to build upscale as well as affordable housing for working-class residents, who live and work around Walter Reed even today. They could provide incentives to generate small businesses or provide city services on this federal government property. Can you envision a new school on Georgia Avenue? Precedent already exists whereby the federal government granted land to the District from St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast to the most recent land exchange President Bush offered along the Anacostia waterfront to spur growth around the proposed baseball stadium.

Ms. Smith said Walter Reed’s closing would have a greater impact inside the base than outside. She noted that the installation is self-contained and although workers frequented businesses along Georgia Avenue, they didn’t have to because eateries and stores exist among the 20 buildings on the base.

The other possible good news is that many of the jobs that will be lost at Walter Reed and in Northern Virginia appear to be local reassignments. Many of those workers will have to change their commuter routines and reverse their commuter routes.

The Washington region’s economy will not have to face the major economic hit that some other areas in the country undoubtedly will suffer.

Maryland, for example, stands to gain at least 2,000 jobs at the Aberdeen Proving Ground after BRAC voted to close Fort Monmouth in New Jersey.

The powerful role change plays in our lives is “far from being something to fear and avoid,” as Ms. Williamson argues in her book because “every change — even the most difficult and painful — gives us an opportunity to receive the miraculous gift of personal [and community] transformation.”

Can Washingtonians, like the flexible Ms. Smith, take a deep breath and find the “gift of change” in BRAC’s decisions?

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