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General who blocked probe replaced as head of military anti-sex abuse office

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP file

Principal Director for Military Personnel Policy Maj. Gen. Gary Patton speaks to reporters at the Pentagon, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012, to discuss the results of the department's Women in Service Review.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is replacing the general in charge of preventing sexual abuse in the military in the wake of new allegations, first reported by NBC News, that the general interfered with an internal investigation into horrific patient abuses at a U.S.-funded hospital in Afghanistan.

The Defense Department announced Monday that Army Maj. Gen.l Gary S. Patton is stepping down as director of the Defense Department Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), effective next month, and retiring from the Army next spring. The new director will be Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Snow.

In a statement, Hagel praised Patton's work on sexual abuse, saying he has "made a lasting positive impact" on the department's efforts to curb assaults in the military. The statement makes no reference to the new allegations against Patton.

But the action comes after a Defense Department inspector general finding disclosed in September that Patton improperly "restricted" an investigation into abuses at the Dawood National Military Hospital in Afghanistan while serving as a top NATO commander there in 2011. Patton was recently formally admonished over the finding, an Army spokesman said Monday.

The Dawood hospital, where wounded Afghan soldiers were treated, received national attention in 2011 after the Wall Street Journal reported on abuses at the facility and gruesome photos surfaced showing patients starving and suffering from maggot-infested wounds. One U.S. legal adviser in Afghanistan later told Congress that conditions at the hospital – funded with more than $200 million from U.S. taxpayers -- were “Auschwitz-like.”

On Nov. 15, NBC News reported new allegations that Patton had blocked a U.S. Navy nurse from briefing a team from the Pentagon inspector general's office about patient abuses at the hospital. "Gen. Patton gets me cornered in the hallway, he puts his finger in my chest and he says, 'You need to stay in your f--- lane,’ lieutenant," Lt. Commander Jeremy Young said in an interview about his efforts to brief investigators.

Read the original NBC News report.

Two other military officers corroborated portions of Young's account to NBC News. Earlier this month Young filed a formal "whistleblower" complaint against Patton with the inspector general. “No officer should EVER place their hands on another person in anger and in an attempt to intimidate them,” he wrote in the complaint, a copy of which was obtained by NBC News. He was due to be interviewed by a Pentagon investigator on his allegations Monday.

After the NBC News story, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D.-N.Y.) said that if Young's allegations were substantiated, Patton "should be relieved of his post." Another whistleblower group, the Project on Government Oversight, has also called for Patton to be dismissed, noting that one of SAPRO's core missions was to encourage military officers to step forward and report abuses.

A Defense Department official, who asked not to be identified, wouldn't comment on the new complaint to the inspector general against Patton or the reasons for his removal.

A spokeswoman for Patton said his decision to retire is “unrelated” to the inspector general’s investigation and that she was “not aware” of any new investigations by the inspector general.

As part of Hagel’s announcement, Patton said, “It has been my great honor and privilege to have served our nation for nearly 35 years in peace and in combat. In my position as SAPRO director I am heartened by signs of progress in combating sexual assault.”

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