A mere four weeks after the Project On Government Oversight called for the removal of the head of the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), the Department announced that Maj. Gen. Gary S. Patton is retiring from the position and will be replaced in January 2014.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and a petition co-signed by thousands of supporters, POGO pointed out that Patton’s documented history of illegally intimidating whistleblowers made him a poor choice for the important leadership position. POGO’s letter to Hagel expressed concern over a Pentagon Inspector General’s investigation that found Patton had interfered with an investigation into claims of fraud and rampant patient abuse at Dawood National Military Hospital in Kabul. Patton served there during his previous assignment as Deputy Commander of the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan.
“By allowing Patton to retain this position of trust, the DoD is at once jeopardizing the efficacy of the sexual assault program, failing to safeguard the rights of military whistleblowers, and failing to hold accountable a general officer who has committed a serious violation,” POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian said in the letter.
The official retirement announcement by the DoD made no mention of POGO’s actions, or of Patton’s questionable activities. In fact Hagel, heralded Patton’s “transparency…and strong leadership” during his time as head of SAPRO, but a congressional staffer close to the issue told POGO on background that the impetus for Patton’s retirement was the DoD Inspector General’s finding against him, coupled with the unwelcome attention from POGO.
Regardless of the reason, Patton’s retirement is welcome news.
Patton’s departure also follows the retirement of Lt. Gen. William Caldwell earlier this year. Caldwell was involved in the same case as Patton and was also mentioned in the IG investigation. According to the Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, Caldwell retired because he knew the findings would block his path to any future promotions within the armed forces.
Blocking an investigation into wrongdoing is not just unconscionable, in this case, it’s also illegal—restricting communications with an Inspector General is a violation of the Military Whistleblower Protection Act.
For his part, Patton denied all accusations against him at a congressional hearing, saying “I never directed subordinates, nor received orders from superiors, that a request for DOD IG visit be either delayed, impeded or avoided for any reasons....”
Multiple witnesses, though, say they saw him doing just that. One nurse at the hospital told POGO that Patton stopped him from showing investigators a man with misaligned bones due to a botched surgery. Patton poked him in the chest and barked, “you need to stay in your [expletive] lane,” then continued, “If you don’t know about bones, you don’t talk about bones.” The nurse was, in fact, exactly the person who knew about bones.
That witness recently made an official complaint against Patton, which must be resolved before Patton is permitted to retire.
Also extremely troubling is the extent of abuse at the hospital that Patton and Caldwell were trying to keep from investigators.
During a congressional hearing last year on the patient abuses, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, said: “Evidence indicates that wounded Afghan soldiers endured starvation, bed sores, and gangrene. Some patients were extorted for medical care, while others were abused, neglected, and made to suffer. Afghan doctors operated in smoke-filled rooms without anesthesia or painkillers. Maggots crawled from festering wounds. Some patients died from lack of care.”
Like whistleblowers involved in the DoD IG investigation, sexual assault victims who decide to come forward are both truth tellers and witnesses to wrongdoing said Kirby Dick, the director of The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual assault in the military. “To come forward and speak out takes a great deal of courage,” he told POGO in an interview. “It’s important to have somebody in charge who is supportive of whistleblowers, somebody who gives the sense he or she understands the experiences of the victim and will believe them and protect them in any way possible. These predators are very damaging to unit cohesion and detrimental to the military readiness of the country.”
From the time they’re fresh recruits, members of our military are drilled to fall in line and not make waves. When sexual assault victims in the military have spoken out, they’ve often faced retaliation from both their peers and superior officers. Sexual assault victims in the military could not have felt protected with Patton on the job given his shameful history of shushing witnesses of wrongdoing.
Confronting the military’s culture of sexual assault is a major challenge, and the military community deserves better than a commander actively intimidating whistleblowers leading the fight. Thankfully, SAPRO will soon be headed by a leader without a tainted past, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Snow. Here’s hoping he can end what has become an all-out epidemic.