With his speech at the University of Southern California Tuesday night, retired Gen. David Petraeus – commander of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before becoming director of the Central Intelligence Agency – effectively signaled his return to public life.
In apologizing for the extramarital affair that ruined his career and expressing a desire to move forward, Mr. Petraeus – once thought of as a potential presidential candidate – has sparked questions about what his second act might be.
The scheduled topic – about veterans affairs – might offer clues.
Though the speech was planned before Mr. Petraeus resigned from the CIA, according to one of his longtime friends, it showed at least one way that the former general might contribute to the national security debate going forward.
“This is something he may look towards in the future, as far as veterans issues go,” says the friend, who spoke to the Monitor only on condition that he not be named.
Veterans support groups “are well intended, but they’re not pulling in the same direction,” the friend adds. Given his stature, Petraeus could “gather the groups together” and help them prioritize.
Whether or not Petraeus has any broader designs in returning to the public eye, the issue of veterans affairs is one of some urgency for the Pentagon as it ends two wars.
While the Pentagon has a responsibility to prepare troops for their departure from the service, it’s a job at which the military hasn’t excelled in the past, says Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Commanders tend to focus on preparing troops for battle, rather than for becoming civilians again. But that approach needs to change, Major Battaglia says.
“If we’re not doing that, shame on us,” he says.
It is a topic Petraeus picked up in his speech. “There is often a view that, because an individual was a great soldier, he or she will naturally do well in and transition effortlessly to the civilian world.”
“In reality, the transition from military service to civilian pursuits often is quite challenging,” he added.
The longtime friend imagines that Petraeus could help veterans' groups choose their top five issues. "He’d have the name recognition and abilities to perhaps get them together.”
In the meantime, speeches like the one Tuesday give him an opportunity to rehabilitate his image. Petraeus began his speech by acknowledging his wrongdoing.
“Needless to say, I join you keenly aware that I am regarded in a different light now than I was a year ago,” he said. “I am also keenly aware that the reason for my recent journey was my own doing.”
He reiterated “how deeply I regret – and apologize for – the circumstances that led me to resign from the CIA and caused such pain for my family, friends, and supporters.”
That said, the public can be forgiving. “He didn’t rob a bank, he’s not a mass murderer, he didn’t steal a bunch of old peoples’ retirement funds,” the friend argues, adding that the apology is very much in keeping with Petraeus’s personal philosophy.
As a commander, “He’s always been one to own up to what you did, then move forward,” the friend adds. “Just don’t do it again.”