General David Petraeus’ Early Life at West Point

The story of how Petraeus began his career at West Point, won the heart of the superintendent’s daughter, and became the soldier that Obama is counting on to win in Afghanistan. An exclusive excerpt from The Fourth Star .

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The story of how Petraeus began his career at West Point, won the heart of the superintendent’s daughter, and became the soldier that Obama is counting on to win in Afghanistan. An exclusive excerpt from The Fourth Star.

As a kid Dave Petraeus used to sneak onto the West Point campus with his friends during the summer and play on the lush athletic fields until someone came along and ordered them off. In winter, he and his friends went skiing on the West Point slopes. His hometown, six miles away, was full of West Point professors and Army families. Reamer Argot, the son of an officer who lived near the Petraeuses’ modest Cape Cod home, remembered Dave as the “alpha dog,” the kid who led the pack of neighborhood boys and was usually up for anything. Several of his teachers at Cornwall High School were retired West Point instructors and now formed an informal recruiting network, steering local teenagers with the stuff to handle the rigors of cadet life to West Point. They urged Petraeus, a star on the school’s championship soccer team and a top-notch student, to seek an appointment.

“Peaches came to the Mil Acad with high ambitions,” White wrote. “Unlike most he accomplished his goals. Dave was always ‘going for it’ in sports, academics, leadership, and even in his social life.

A wiry 150 pounds, Petraeus barely looked old enough to be out of junior high school. His family had no ties to the Army. His father, Sixtus Petraeus, a Dutch seaman until World War II, when he emigrated to the United States, worked for the local power company. His mother, who had attended Oberlin College, was uncertain about sending her only son into the Army with the Vietnam War still under way. But when West Point became one of the few colleges to recruit him to play soccer, Petraeus decided to give it a try. The full scholarship was attractive to a family of limited means, and if he didn’t like it, he could always transfer before his junior year without owing the Army anything. He made the drive with his parents to the academy in late June and said goodbye, plunging into the chaos of Beast Barracks, the eight-week hazing ordeal plebes are subjected to before classes even start. Dave didn’t have much trouble. He was meticulous and serious, the kind of cadet who knew a lot of the tricks for making life slightly more bearable, like where to send away for anodized brass uniform buttons and belt buckles that would keep their shine indefinitely—sparing you a few minutes of late-night polishing and maybe the unwanted attention from some upperclassman bracing you for not having gleaming buttons.

He did well during his plebe year but not spectacularly, earning a class rank of 161st out of more than 800 classmates. “I thought, ‘Okay, he’s like me, an A or B student,’ ” recalled Dave Buto, one of his plebe-year roommates. “But his second year he took off.” Petraeus raised his class rank into the 60s. He gravitated toward others like him—hypercompetitive guys who enjoyed pushing each other to do better. At West Point, where cadets were ranked, graded, and assessed every day of their four years, he was in his element. The first time he went for a run around campus with his roommate,Chris White, they started out at a moderate jog, but the pace kept increasing, until after about five miles both of them were running flat out, neither wanting to admit he could not keep up. They finally pulled up outside the dormitory, panting and exhausted. “You’re insane. I’m never running with you again,” White said, more than a little serious. “I wanted to slow down, but you kept speeding up,” Petraeus answered, grinning.

Petraeus wanted to go even faster. White told him that the Army paid to send the eight top graduates of the military academy every year to medical school on scholarship. His roommate was going for it, so Petraeus decided he would, too. Not because he had decided he wanted to be a doctor, but because aiming for the top appealed to him. It was even more exclusive than being a “Star Man,” a cadet who was entitled to wear a small star on his collar for finishing in the top 5 percent of his class. Though room assignments rotated every three months, Petraeus and White received permission to be roommates several times during their second and third years. Almost every night they requested “late lights,” permission to stay up an hour past the 10 o’clock curfew, so they could study an hour longer before racking out. Petraeus made every second count. He persuaded his roommate to stop taking showers before bed, arguing it was more efficient to get up a few minutes early than to waste precious study time at night. When he got tired, Petraeus walked in circles in his dorm room to prevent himself from falling asleep.

He made a perfunctory call that spring to another nearby college to see if they were interested in offering him an athletic scholarship, but by then he had pretty much decided to stay on at West Point. As time went on, other cadets noticed that Petraeus became more and more serious about all aspects of cadet life—academics, military training, and the little details that separated the guys who were intent on excelling from those who resented the academy’s tyrannies and just wanted to make it through.

As firsties (as seniors are called at West Point), cadets pick classmates to write a few words summing up their four years at West Point for the yearbook. Petraeus asked Chris White to compose his. “Peaches came to the Mil Acad with high ambitions,” White wrote, using the nickname Petraeus had acquired as a kid and brought with him to West Point. “Unlike most he accomplished his goals. Dave was always ‘going for it’ in sports, academics, leadership, and even in his social life. This attitude will surely lead to success in the future, Army or otherwise.” The reference to his social life was as an inside joke. Petraeus was dating Holly Knowlton, the daughter of the West Point superintendent, Lieutenant General William Knowlton. They had met on a blind date, attending a Saturday football game. She was pretty and smart and in her own way just as driven as Dave. “This is the girl you are going to marry,” John Edgecomb, a fellow cadet, recalled telling Petraeus. A senior at Dickinson College, Holly was fluent in French and finishing her honors dissertation on the novelist François Mauriac. It was a whirlwind romance. By second semester, Dave and Holly were often seen on the campus tennis courts or driving around town in the superintendent’s car.

By then he had abandoned his plans for medical school. He had done well enough to become a Star Man, finishing 43rd in his class, and was intent on becoming an infantryman. In his usual way he had picked the most demanding path. In May 1974, a few days before graduation, he and the rest of his class filed into South Auditorium. Each cadet stood and announced which branch of the service he was entering. Those at the top of the class had their pick, and called out “engineers” or “artillery” or “aviation” or “armor.” Since Vietnam, the popularity of the infantry, the branch that did the most fighting and dying in Southeast Asia, had plummeted, and even with the Army gone from Vietnam it had not recovered. (For a class motto, one of the suggestions had been “No More War ’74,” but the class settled on the more patriotic “Pride of the Corps ’74.”) When Petraeus’s turn came, 43 of his classmates already had declared their branch selections. Only one had chosen the infantry. Petraeus became the second, and when he announced his choice an admiring cheer went up from the ranks. To young men who had been told since they entered Thayer Gate four years earlier that their job was to prepare to lead men in combat, anyone who went into the infantry voluntarily was worthy of special recognition. A few weeks later Petraeus received his commission as a second lieutenant and married Holly in the West Point Chapel. At the reception afterward, the young couple and their guests cruised up the Hudson River on the superintendent’s yacht, basking in the early-summer twilight.

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Greg Jaffe covers the military for The Washington Post where he has been since March 2009. Prior to the Post, he was a reporter with The Wall Street Journal from 1995-2008. He is the co-author of the book The Fourth Star about the lives of Generals Casey, Abizaid, Chiarelli, and Petraeus from 1970 through the Iraq war. Jaffe has made multiple trips to Afghanistan and Iraq and embedded with troops at all levels.