Conflict & Justice

Petraeus's fall a reminder of the personal toll of military service

WASHINGTON—Honoring Veterans Day is about remembering the sacrifices of the fallen and the struggles of those soldiers who come home wounded by war.

It’s about pondering the toll of the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on the over-stressed less than one percent of the American population that actually serves in the military, and this year it forces the country to ask whether General David H. Petraeus and his family are part of that wider toll.

This Veterans Day falls amid the wreckage of one of the most distinguished military careers in modern history, and what those who know Petraeus well say is an uncharacteristic failure of judgment and lack of discipline.

It turns out that the venerated four-star general is perhaps not so different from the 800,000 men and women who have served multiple combat tours, many of them suffering the strains and invisible wounds that can fracture families, break marriages and crush spirits.

General Jack Keane, one of Petraeus’ mentors in the military who served as his adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he was shocked and saddened about the revelations and that he was focusing on helping Petraeus as a friend.

In a phone interview from his home in Washington, Keane said the scandal unfolds in a wider context that is worth considering on Veterans Day.

“Look, we have asked so much of this 9-11 generation of the military. That’s because the ground forces have never been large enough. And that has caused sacrifices for those in the field and it has caused strains on families and on marriages,” said Keane.

“And no commander has deployed more, as far as I know, than David Petraeus,” he added.

Petraeus served a total of six tours of command in active combat duty in the last ten years, a commitment of leadership matched by no other general in American history except George Washington.

More from GlobalPost: Gen. Petraeus resigns over affair with Paula Broadwell

But as extraordinary as that was, hundreds of thousands of ordinary American service men and women have shouldered the burden of multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan just like Petraeus. In fact, military records show that 300,000 have served more than four tours.

On this Veterans Day, the ceremonial wreaths were laid by President Obama at Arlington Cemetery yesterday for all those killed in combat including 6,000 US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. There were prayers for the hundreds of thousands who have been wounded.

And then there are the invisible wounds of war that follow many veterans home:

  • An estimated 20 percent suffer the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  • The divorce rate among veterans is 20 percent higher than the public at large with some 30,000 servicemen and women divorcing last year, according to the Pentagon.
  • The suicide rate is higher as well, and over the summer it spiked to a record level with an average of one every day.

And so have General Petraeus and his family been wounded by war and the stresses on marriages and families that multiple tours can cause?

Petraeus would likely cringe at this question. He has taken responsibility for his own “poor judgment” in having an extramarital affair, holding himself to the same standards that he has held those who served under him.

He reportedly offered his resignation on Election Day for engaging in an affair with Paula Broadwell, the Harvard University military analyst and author of a biography who was provided unusual access to the 60-year-old Petraeus.

Despite President Obama’s initial assertion that it was not necessary for Petraeus to resign, the news that he was stepping down broke Friday afternoon as Petraeus insisted.

There are many more questions than answers at this point. Congress is pushing for hearings on how the FBI came to investigate the emails that revealed this affair and there will be many who wonder if there is not a larger story behind the scandal.

Petraeus was set to testify this week before congressional hearings on the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya that resulted in the death of four Americans, including the US ambassador. And Congress is expected to press him to testify despite the scandal.

To say the marital infidelity that dramatically ended Petraeus’ distinguished career was somehow the result of the stresses of multiple tours and the alienation they created from Holly, his wife of 38 years, is not intended as an excuse, but a possible explanation.

Two years ago, Petraeus sat behind the desk of his office in Kabul at the command headquarters of the International Security Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) and spoke of the strain of the war on his own family and his own marriage.

I had covered Petraeus in the field since 2003 when he led the 101st Airborne Division in the initial invasion of Iraq, through the authoring of the counter-insurgency manual that defined American military strategy in a post-9-11 world, through the troop surge he commanded in Baghdad and then the latest surge in Afghanistan.

On that day back in January 2011, I asked Petraeus about this long service. He opened up about how he and his family were, like all military families, trying to endure the long tours and that he was aware of the fact that he was not immune to the pressures.

“It’s hard, it’s definitely hard,” Petraeus said when asked about how so many combat tours had affected his own personal life and his family.

“Every family makes enormous sacrifices, long separations, the strain of knowing a loved one is in harm’s way,” he said, at one point pulling out family photos from his desk and proudly pointing to a picture of his son, Stephen, who had served in Afghanistan.

That interview with GlobalPost as part of a Special Report titled “The Last Fighting Season,” offered a rare and unguarded moment with the general, a glimpse into a simple truth: Even the highest levels of command are not immune to suffering the ravages of war and the toll they take on a family.

“I think you have to try to get into a rhythm, I guess, if you will, a route that is sustainable,” he added.

“I am blessed to have a wonderful wife, who is an army daughter, an army wife and an army mother,” he said of Holly, who at the time was just stepping into a more visible role through an Obama administration appointment to work on behalf of veterans and their families.

“She is very understated and has a very dry humor that particularly pokes fun at me,” Petraeus added.

On this Veterans Day, it’s hard to imagine where David H. Petraeus found the quiet and the reverence to remember all those who have served, and all those who have fallen.

And it’s hard to imagine that the general is not struggling with deep personal regret and a profound sense of failing and dishonor.

It’s hard to imagine just how difficult it was for him to offer his resignation as director of the CIA after 18 months in a job he loved and for which he had an extraordinary depth of experience based on 40 years of service that took him to the highest levels of command as one of the most decorated and distinguished American generals in modern history.

It’s hard to imagine what he has to say to Holly, who is akin to royalty in the military for the history of service by her family and the role she played in helping veterans; or what it’s like to navigate the uncomfortable silence from his two grown children.

But a question Americans might want to ask themselves this weekend is how much pressure are we putting on that slim less than one percent of our country who have served in the post-9-11 conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan, the longest war in American history?

How much of that heavy burden contributes to the relentless stress, poor judgment and uncontrollable anger that can fray at the fabric of a family and destroy a marriage?

How much are we ourselves responsible for the damage we’ve done to far too many families and far too many soldiers who’ve served far too many tours in a conflict that has gone on far too long?

More from GlobalPost: Planet Pic: Veterans honored around the world