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US Navy ready to open new hospital on Okinawa

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The U.S. Navy hospital on Camp Lester was built at the height of the Cold War, a time when the U.S. military ran the island under an occupation government and issued its own yen currency for G.I.s to spend off base.

Since then, generations of those deployed to the Pacific have been treated, picked up prescriptions or delivered babies at the Okinawa facility.

Now the Navy is moving its largest overseas hospital down the road to a new 443,000-square-foot facility on the neighboring Camp Foster Marine Corps base.

The relocation is the end of an era for a 55-year-old facility that serves 1,100 patients a day from across the region. It also puts the Marine Corps a step closer to returning the land to the Japanese as part of a two-decade effort to reduce the number of Marines and the large military footprint on Okinawa.

For the next two weeks, the hospital will be focused on keeping services up and running while also moving 1,000 staff members and medical equipment to the new building, said Capt. Pius Aiyelawo, commander of the hospital.

At any given time, about 500 women are receiving care under the Obstetrics and Gynecology department, according to the Navy. The hospital also has the region’s only neonatal intensive care unit, staffed by the Air Force 18th Medical Operations squadron. The unit can transport premature babies to the Okinawa facility for care or to other hospitals in Hawaii and San Diego.

Aiyelawo said the relocation is complex, with each component being moved individually so health care is not disrupted.

“I have to sequence and synchronize this move,” he said. “You never know when babies are going to be born and you never know when you’ll have a surgery.”

Administrative staff and the ambulatory clinic will be moved through the second week of March. In-patient services and the neonatal ICU will be the last departments to relocate.

The entire move is scheduled to be complete on March 16, Aiyelawo said. Until then, anyone who needs emergency care can still walk into the Camp Lester building.

The new Camp Foster facility is twice as big, is more energy-efficient and has more parking. It also has a net reduction of in-patient beds due to efficiencies in medicine over the years, Aiyelawo said.

The U.S. Pacific Command Armed Services Blood Bank, which serves the region, is also slated to leave Camp Lester and relocate near the new hospital next year, he said.

The Lester base will be hollowed out by the loss of the facilities, though the base still has a Department of Defense middle school and military family housing.

The U.S. and Japan have agreed to eventually close Camp Lester and some other bases and give the land back to Okinawa as part of a larger effort to realign forces in Japan.

Tokyo and Washington signed a new pact last year that aims to relocate about 9,000 Okinawa Marines to Guam and elsewhere in the Pacific, close the controversial Futenma air station and expedite the return of U.S. military land.

However, it remains unclear when Camp Lester will be decommissioned, said Marine Corps spokesman 1st Lt. Gregory Carroll.

Some of the hospital buildings will be converted into bachelor Marine housing, Carroll said.

Meanwhile, Lester Middle School will eventually be moved to Camp Foster as well, but the service has yet to find a replacement location, he said. A site will be selected as part of a new base master plan that is due in three years.

There is no short-term plan to empty out the 375 military housing units on the base, but eventually, those will be moved to Camp Foster, too, Carroll said.

tritten.travis@stripes.com

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