Officials rename Walter Reed cancer center for the late Rep. Jack Murtha

| Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, 4:32 p.m.

BETHESDA, Md. — Army Capt. Michael Baker was stationed in Germany when doctors diagnosed his daughter, Emma, with leukemia.

The family immediately flew back to the United States, where Emma, 4, began chemotherapy treatment in May at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

“This place is absolutely amazing,” said Baker, 32, of Tempe, Ariz., who worked as a commander at the Landstuhl Medical Center. “I wouldn't want my daughter to be treated anywhere else.”

Emma, now in remission, was a special guest Monday at a ceremony to rename Walter Reed's cancer facility as the John P. Murtha Cancer Center. Dignitaries paid tribute to Murtha, the late Johnstown Democrat who chaired the House Defense appropriations subcommittee.

“I love you,” Emma whispered to Murtha's widow, Joyce, handing her a bouquet of red roses before taking a seat next to her mother, Elizabeth, and four siblings.

During his 36 years in Congress, Murtha championed military causes and steered billions of dollars to the military for medical research related to areas such as breast and prostate cancer and diabetes. He died in February 2010 from complications from gallbladder surgery.

Monday's event brought together 12 members of Congress and federal officials, including Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Jonathan Woodson and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

In an interview with the Tribune-Review, Pelosi called her former colleague an irreplaceable leader.

“I miss him so much, but the glory of having his legacy continued is a comfort to me,” Pelosi said. “This is a coming together of so many things — the security of our country, the health of our people, the leadership of a man. People have to know that this was a transformative approach that he took.”

Woodson told about 70 guests that the cancer center fulfills the nation's promise to protect members of the military anywhere in the world. He called the center “an investment in the future of military medicine.” It employs more than 300 health care workers and includes off-campus research laboratories in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia.

“It is fitting that the center bears the name of a proud Marine,” Woodson said.

Murtha cared so much about wounded soldiers that he visited Walter Reed every week, said his widow, who was accompanied by sons John and Patrick, John Murtha's brother and sister-in-law, and several other relatives. Murtha never allowed news media to document his visits to the hospital because he didn't want to exploit the patients, his wife said.

Joyce Murtha said her husband had a knack for talking to soldiers in a way that put them at ease.

“He walked in and said in his loud voice, ‘What the hell happened to you?' ” she recalled. “They opened up immediately and started talking to him.”

Sometimes, Murtha would interrupt, asking them for feedback on how their injuries could have been prevented or how their treatment could be improved.

“The nurses said to me, ‘There is nobody that comes to this hospital and goes to see the wounded that has the same impact that your husband has,' ” Murtha said. “He poured his heart and soul into those hospitals and taking care of the military.”

Luis Fábregas and Salena Zito are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Fábregas can be reached at 412-320-7998 or Zito can be reached at

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