By David Alexander and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. Defense Department's effort to curb sexual assault in the military, Major General Gary Patton, has decided to retire and will step down in mid-January, a Pentagon spokesman said on Monday.
Patton, who heads the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, will be replaced on January 15 by Major General Jeffrey Snow, Pentagon spokesman Steve Warren said. Snow previously worked as director of strategy and plans in the office of the deputy chief of staff of the Army.
The announcement comes days before the U.S. Senate is due to vote on a sweeping defense authorization bill that includes two dozen new provisions to deal with an epidemic of sexual assault in the military.
A report from Patton's office at the Pentagon in May found that estimated cases of unwanted sexual contact jumped to 26,000 in 2012 from 19,000 the previous year, which helped prompt demands for reform.
Warren said Patton had done a "tremendous job" in the office over the past 18 months, a period of increasing focus on the problem of sexual assault in the military.
Warren said Patton's decision to retire was made in August and there was no link to the investigation of his actions as deputy commander of the NATO Training Mission in Afghanistan.
An inspector general investigation concluded Patton and his boss, Lieutenant General William Caldwell, attempted to restrict subordinates from communicating with investigators looking into poor treatment of patients at a military hospital.
The Pentagon took administrative action against Patton and Caldwell over the issue, a defense official said.
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a leader of congressional efforts to address the sexual assault crisis, said she was looking forward to meeting with Snow "to discuss his views and vision for strengthening" the office.
The defense bill adds new restrictions to commanders' abilities to intervene in rape or other assault cases and ends the statute of limitations on those cases.
It does not include an amendment Gillibrand proposed to place decisions about whether to take decisions to prosecute sex crimes away from commanders and place them in the hands of professional military prosecutors.
The Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, has promised that Gillibrand's legislation will come up for a vote as a standalone measure in the Senate next year.
"Senator Gillibrand has been assured a vote ... and will continue to work to build additional support," Bethany Lesser, a spokeswoman for Gillibrand, said.
The National Defense Authorization Act passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming 350-69 vote last week. It is expected to be passed by the Senate, where a procedural vote is likely on Wednesday, with a final vote on Thursday or Friday.
(Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)