Wilford Hall: Preserving a Legacy, Brick by Brick

Fort Worth District, USACE
Published Feb. 27, 2024

Retired nurses and former medical staff of Wilford Hall, located at Lackland Air Force Base, load a truck with pieces of bricks and rocks from the Wilford Hall demolition site to take home as a piece of history, October 20, 2023.

Wilford Hall Medical Center, located on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, was once the flagship of military medicine, named after the medical pioneer, Brig. Gen. Wilford F. Hall. With early beginnings in 1942, as a 100-bed hospital, the medical center quickly grew to a 1,200-bed, Level 1 trauma center by 1957. The Level 1 designation expanded resources and capabilities for handling patients with complex and life-threatening injuries, a service that extended beyond the Air Force community, and into the surrounding civilian community as well.

Wilford Hall continuously pushed the envelope on medical possibilities which led to many quiet achievements and first happenings at every level of care.

According to Air Force representatives, this expanded the possibilities of care which included the first successful liver transplant in 1989, using Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation technology as a form of life support. It also included the first written concept of the critical care air transport team in 1992, and the first, hand transplant within the Department of Defense in 2010, to name a few.

“It was a unique opportunity to be a part of the development of the first CCATT, and see innovation happening right before my eyes,” reminisced Patricia “Pat” Meza, retired Air Force colonel, and former nurse stationed at Wilford Hall Medical Center.

The mood turned nostalgic as she gazed at the partial demolition, currently underway, of her beloved Wilford Hall.

Due to the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure, Wilford Hall’s mission merged with the Brooke Army Medical Center to form the San Antonio Military Medical Center. A new outpatient-only, Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center emerged leaving the old Wilford Hall to undergo demolition and site restoration.

Seeing the demolition was nearing the later phases, Meza contacted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Worth District to find a way to preserve memories of the time she spent at Wilford Hall.

“It’s a nostalgic moment to see the demolition,” Meza lamented. “A lot of our hearts are breaking even though we knew this moment would happen. It’s also a celebration because we knew we had to keep up with the times, and then you look over and you see this wonderful building (Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center) on the other side where the good work is continuing.”

The Fort Worth District, with the help of the 59th Medical Wing, and onsite contractors, worked with Meza to fulfill a request and create a unique opportunity to pass down tangible remnants of Wilford Hall.

“It’s not every day we get a request to take home parts of a building being demolished. After hearing how much Wilford Hall meant to Col. Meza, and how much interest there was from other veterans, we knew it was imperative for all parties involved to work together and make this event happen,” recalled Randy Cephus, deputy chief of public affairs for the Fort Worth district.

The small-scale event began on a typical sweltering Friday in Texas; the heat was surpassed only by remnants of dust, excitement, disbelief, nostalgia, and camaraderie. Four veterans and one family member showed up to collect over 200 bricks from sections safely removed from the demolition site. The veterans, ranging from enlisted to officer, collectively devoted four to 16 years caring for patients at Wilford Hall. As with many military members that reunite after years of serving at the same location, the time quickly filled with laughter, tears and stories of their time spent at Wilford Hall.

“Now I have something tangible to go with the memories that I’ll always have,” asserted Amy Woods-Russell, retired Air Force master sergeant, and former inpatient mental health specialist.

Woods-Russell helped the other veterans load two pick-up trucks to haul the bricks to an alternate location for later distribution to other military members and veterans who wanted to preserve a piece of Wilford Hall’s legacy.

Overall, the veterans were excited to be a part of this moment. As Meza placed the final brick into the pickup bed, she remarked, “It’s an awesome feeling to once again touch Wilford Hall before it all comes down and I get to take it home with me.”

With the last bricks loaded, laughter was replaced with quiet, final moments to take one last look and say their bittersweet farewells. Each look expressed a knowing that even though the old Wilford Hall will cease to exist, its legacy as a giant in Air Force healthcare will forever be preserved, one brick and memory at a time.