WASHINGTON -- The director of the Pentagon's sexual assault prevention efforts is retiring, after a year in which estimates of sexual misconduct spiked and he was implicated in an effort to cover up abuse at a hospital in Afghanistan.
Army Maj. Gen. Gary Patton has led the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. His office was responsible for the study this spring that estimated there were 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact in the military in 2012, an increase of more than a third compared with 2010.
Meantime, the Pentagon's inspector general announced this fall that it had determined Patton and his boss, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, had improperly tried to hinder the staff at their training command in Afghanistan in 2011 from talking to investigators about poor conditions at a hospital there.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel praised Patton, who also led troops in combat in Iraq, in announcing his retirement.
"He has a history of tackling tough assignments and I want to thank him for the transparency, energy, persistence and strong leadership he has brought to the department's sexual assault prevention and response program over these past 18 months," Hagel said in a statement. "I met with him every week and always have counted on his expertise. Maj. Gen. Patton has made a lasting positive impact on our program and on the men and women of our military."
Patton will be replaced by Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow next month.
Patton declined to comment on his retirement.
Advocates for sexual assault victims and whistle blowers said his departure was overdue.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has led an effort to overhaul the military's judicial system to deal with the sexual assault crisis. She questioned Patton's fitness for the job.
"There are serious questions about General Patton's conduct involving blocking an independent investigation, so I am concerned this decision is more about avoiding getting to the bottom of what happened in that case," Gillibrand said in a statement.
Danielle Bryan, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan watchdog group, said Patton was the wrong choice for the job.
"Patton was not the right person to lead this important program and his retirement is the first step in restoring credibility to the Pentagon's promise of reducing sexual assaults in the military," she said.
In an interview with USA TODAY this summer, Patton said eradicating sexism and sexual harassment from the military were key to stemming its crisis with sexual assault.
"It's the climate of dignity and respect where there are no instances where sexual harassment, sexist behavior, sexual assault are tolerated," Patton said. "How will we know when we get there? We'll know when we get there when a sexist remark is treated with the same absolute disdain and visceral response as a racist slur is today in the military. We have a ways to go to get to that point."
Patton, along with then-Gen. Carter Ham, were among the first general officers to acknowledge that they had suffered from post-traumatic stress. In an interview in 2008, Patton told USA TODAY that his experience commanding a brigade in Iraq that lost 69 soldiers dogged him at home in Fort Carson in Colorado.
He worked with a counselor to deal with the issue and said it was incumbent on generals to talk about it.