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Walter Reed to rename cancer treatment unit to honor Murtha

| Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, 9:02 p.m.

When a group of military wives approached John Murtha in the 1990s concerned they couldn't get mammograms in military hospitals, the late congressman said, “ ‘That just can't be.' If we're going to have women in the military, then we're going to provide mammograms,” his widow, Joyce, told the Tribune-Review.

Murtha worked tirelessly to secure money to make sure women in America's armed forces had access to the breast cancer screening tool. He didn't stop there, but worked to improve health care for all troops, she said.

Two years after his death, the Department of Defense is honoring Murtha's well-documented dedication to the nation's military. Officials at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the nation's largest military hospital, will rename its cancer treatment unit at the new Bethesda, Md., complex the John P. Murtha Cancer Center. A dedication ceremony will be held Monday.

“It's a very fitting tribute to my husband because he cared so much about the troops and making sure they were taken care of. I'm delighted, ” said Joyce Murtha, whose husband served in Congress from 1974 until his death in February 2010. For much of that time, the former Marine either chaired or was the ranking member of the House panel that oversaw defense spending. He is the longest-serving congressman in Pennsylvania history.

The 74,000-square-foot cancer center, which is located in Walter Reed's America building, brings together experts from virtually every cancer specialty, said Col. Craig Shriver, director of the United States Military Cancer Institute. Some types of cancer tend to afflict the military in higher rates than civilians, he said, citing a 2009 study by the institute that showed higher rates of breast and prostate cancer in the military.

“People will have access to the most highly trained cancer experts in the Department of Defense,” he said.

The center, which employs more than 330 specially trained military, civilian and contract workers, will offer services such as chemotherapy, radiation and pain management, under the same roof, a “one-stop shop” concept that Shriver praised. Before Walter Reed moved from Washington to its new Bethesda location in 2011, cancer services had been scattered throughout its campus.

Shriver said the center is working on a model to identify patients with a high risk of cancer by using genetic screenings.

U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, who succeeded Murtha as the state's 12th District congressman, said his former boss visited wounded soldiers every week at Walter Reed, a habit that showed his commitment.

“This isn't something that he did once or twice, it's something that he championed over two decades and really made a difference,” said Critz, a Johnstown Democrat who worked as a district director for Murtha. “He cared so deeply for these men and women.”

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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