Late congressman was advocate of medical care for military members and their families
December 2, 2012 5:00 AM
John Murtha in 2006
By Tracie Mauriello Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
He has a neuroscience institute, an airport, an Army Reserve center, a highway, and a Navy ship named for him. There's even a John P. Murtha memorial tree on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
Starting Monday, a comprehensive cancer center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center will bear Mr. Murtha's name, too.
The popular Democratic congressman died in 2010 but his legacy is still remembered at home in Johnstown, in Washington where he wielded power over defense appropriations and at military medical centers around the country that bear the Murtha name.
Mr. Murtha had a longtime interest in medical care for members of the military and their families.
"It was always his overriding concern. He was worried about our troops being taken care of physically when they get back," said his widow, Joyce, who plans to attend Monday's naming ceremony in Maryland, where top military brass including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are expected to honor him.
The cancer center was conceived as part of Pentagon's 2005 Base Realignment and Closure program. It is a consolidation of all Army, Navy and Air Force health care assets in the Washington, D.C. region.
"That means that highest level of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary care," said Col. Craig Shriver, a surgeon and a native of Reading, Pa., who is serving as the center's director. "People have access to the most highly trained cancer experts in the Department of Defense and those needed to be co-located in one center."
The groundwork was laid years ago by Mr. Murtha who, as chairman of the House Defense subcommittee on appropriations, directed billions of dollars to medical facilities over many years. He also steered funding for cancer research that helps civilians as well as military families, Dr. Shriver said.
He is "one individual who really -- over 20 years -- has made this possible and who really represents one of the foremost persons who had a positive impact on so many levels for cancer care and research," Dr. Shriver said.
Mrs. Murtha remembers her husband's concern 20 years ago when he heard from military wives who complained they had no access to mammograms at military medical facilities.
"He said, 'Well that's not right. If we're going to have women in the military -- along with spouses and family members of troops -- then we should take care of them and they should be able to get a mammogram,'" Mrs. Murtha remembered.
So began his campaign to provide preventative cancer screenings at military hospitals and healthcare facilities.
"That's where it all started," Mrs. Murtha said.
It wasn't as simple as getting the money to the right place, she remembered. After the funding came through, Pentagon officials called the congressman's office to ask what they were supposed to do with it, she said. They weren't used to getting funding for preventative care for women, she said.
Now that kind of care, and much more, is available in Bethesda and many other military medical facilities nationwide.
A champion of military medicine
Military medical leaders give the congressman credit for that.
"He's best known for his role as a champion for the Department of Defense, but a lot of us knew him as a champion of military medicine. He's one of those guys who never met a disease he didn't hate," said Tom Kurtz, chief executive officer of Windber Research Institute in Somerset County. Windber's researchers study tumors and their work is funded largely through the Department of Defense.
Mr. Murtha would go into committee meetings with other members who were more interested in talking about tanks and armor that medicine, but Mr. Murtha persuaded them they needed to fund both, and those discussions started with breast cancer care.
The John P. Murtha Cancer Center will occupy a floor of the sprawling medical campus's new 515,000-square-foot America Building, which also houses a rehabilitation pool, a prosthetic adjustment lab, an exercise center and several outpatient clinics.
The institute employs both military and civilian doctors, nurses and researchers who, together, aim to coordinate and improve cancer research, education and care in all branches of the armed services.
Located on 243 acres, the National Military Medical Center is the world's largest military healthcare facility. It provides care to about a million patients a year. It was formed in 2011 from the merger of the National Naval Medical Center and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Mr. Murtha served 36 years in Congress before he died from complications after gallbladder surgery at age 77.
The longest-serving congressman in Pennsylvania history, he was a pro-life Democrat and an old-fashioned powerbroker who negotiated deals on and off the House floor.
"He had a real ability to reach across the aisle and get things done," Mr. Kurtz said. "He expended a lot of political capital to do it."
FBI documents released after his death confirmed suspicions that the Justice Department suspected him of funneling earmarks to sham entities with ties to close allies, The Washington Post reported last year.
Decades earlier he also had been involved, but never indicted, in the Abscam investigation, which targeted congressmen dealing with FBI agents posing as Saudi Arabians offering bribes for help getting green cards.
Off Capitol Hill he was known to make frequent visits to Walter Reed and other medical centers to visit troops and ensure programs were running well.
"He didn't just appropriate money. He watched these programs like a hawk," Mr. Kurtz said.
Known for bringing earmarks back to the district, he was lambasted by reform groups and revered by defense contractors.
"The things he did in military medicine represented everything that was right about earmarks," Mr. Kurtz said. "The kind of care that's in military health centers now would never exist without his ability to put some congressional dollars into them."