Holiday protest is step in veterans' fight to save Fort Howard hospital; Patients in aging building to be helped at other sites


The wind-whipped rain carried Joseph Conway back in time as he stood among the crowd yesterday at Fort Howard VA Medical Center.

The ex-Army paratrooper joined more than 75 veterans and federal workers in the rain to protest what most admit is a fait accompli -- the demolition of the historic hospital on the Chesapeake Bay, which would be decided on as early as next year. "They have their minds made up to tear the hospital down, but I've received good care here, and since I live in Baltimore, it's been convenient," said Conway, a hospital patient who was wounded three times while serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam. "It's nothing but politics and money."

The Veterans Day rally -- on a Veterans Day when the weather reminded Conway him of those Southeast Asian downpours -- was sponsored by American Federation of Government Employees, who work for the Department of Veterans Affairs. About 350 people work at Fort Howard in eastern Baltimore County.

The Department of Veterans Affairs proposed a year ago demolishing the main hospital building, a 56-year-old construction with window air conditioners and dormitory-style bathrooms. The hospital has 85 beds, but the average number of patients is 75.

Old plumbing and electrical systems are constant problems, and the building has poor handicapped accessibility. Many rooms and corridors of the five-story brick building are lackluster.

Officials also plan to demolish more than two dozen houses and smaller structures on the hospital campus. The department plans to serve the medical needs of Maryland's 500,000 veterans at three facilities -- in downtown Baltimore, north Baltimore and Perry Point in Cecil County. A smaller outpatient clinic will be built at Fort Howard, and the federal government will donate 10 to 15 acres of the site to the state, which plans to open a retirement home for veterans. The state also has a veterans home in Calvert County.

Dennis H. Smith, director of the veterans medical facilities in Maryland, said no hospital employees have been or will be laid off when Fort Howard is demolished, and that veterans will be better served at other facilities.

"Fort Howard has been a tradition since 1943, but it has decayed," he said.

Smith said "triplex" housing -- three houses joined together -- will be built at Fort Howard for assisted and independent living, with veterans getting first preference. That section of Fort Howard will be leased to a private firm, which will manage the houses.

But he said it was important to understand the sentiments of the veterans protesting Fort Howard's closing.

"The hospital, no matter what shape it's in, represents their military history," Smith said. "It is a symbolic representation of service to their country."

World War II veteran John Matthews, who represented the Charles Evering VFW Post in Rosedale at the rally, said he was suspicious of the government's plan.

"Somebody is after a prime piece of real estate," said Matthews, who fought in the Pacific. "The private outfit they hire to run the housing will rent to non-veterans." But Philip Campagne, state commander of the Disabled American Veterans group, said the 17,000-member group approved the Fort Howard plan in June.

"This place is just too old. No public transportation comes down here anymore," said Campagne, who served in World War II.

He remembered when he was treated several years ago at Fort Howard. "I had a corner room with a view of the bay. But that's gone forever," he said. "They haven't performed surgery here in 30 years."

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