Holly Petraeus: The Woman Behind the General

Holly Petraeus is a military scion, a financial warrior allied with Elizabeth Warren—and now, the wife of a publicly shamed general.

Earlier this year, Gen. David Petraeus praised his wife Holly, calling her “the greatest source of support, wise counsel, and love that any soldier could have.”

And two days ago, he apologized to his former colleagues at the CIA for “engaging in an extramarital affair.” Such behavior, he wrote, “is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours.”

It has since become clear that the other woman was Paula Broadwell, Petraeus’s biographer. But who is the woman whose forgiveness matters most in the coming weeks? Holly Petraeus, a reserved woman with a graying bob and sweeping bangs, has a distinguished legacy of her own to maintain.

When Hollister Knowlton was a senior at Dickinson College, she visited her parents at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where her father, Gen. William Knowlton, was superintendent. Through a family friend, she fell into a last-minute blind date with young cadet David Petraeus. The two attended a football game.

“There was a superintendent with an attractive daughter and 4,000 lonely guys,” remembered classmate Conrad Crane in an interview with USA Today. “Dave was the one who got the girl.” The two announced their engagement in The New York Times on May 12, 1974, and graduated soon after, Holly with a degree in both French and English and David as a second lieutenant. They married within two months. “I admired his intelligence and thought he was great. I had no way of predicting how far he would go,” Holly said about their early romance in a 2011 interview with Dickinson Magazine. And until the recent revelations, Holly and David had a seemingly storybook marriage: young sweethearts with successful careers, two bright children, and 38 years together.

The pairing seems a natural fit. Holly Petraeus, married to one of the U.S. Army’s most decorated and celebrated men, is the product of a heritage steeped in military service stretching back to the Revolutionary War. Not only had her husband enlisted, but so had her brother, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather.

Last year it was revealed that the couple’s son, Stephen, a graduate of MIT, had quietly served two tours in Afghanistan, carrying on his father’s work and maternal family’s legacy. Meanwhile, their daughter, Anne, graduated in 2004 from her mother’s alma mater, Dickinson, a college that awarded the general with an honorary doctorate degree when he spoke at commencement in 2012.

Holly took the traditional notion of an Army wife to a new level, building a legacy and reputation of her own even as her husband oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and rose to lead the CIA. She followed David faithfully throughout his steady rise, moving 23 times in 36 years. (Petraeus once publicly thanked Holly for being “Mrs. Dad for the bulk of the last decade while I’ve been deployed.”) But then, after years of volunteering at Army posts, the couple settled down in Virginia, and Holly dove into the unglamorous world of financial scams and illegal foreclosures that threaten military families. She worked as director of the Better Business Bureau’s Military Line for six years, providing financial education and advice to soldiers and their wives. Inspired by her and David’s own mistakes—she has said that their first purchases as newlyweds were a red convertible sports car, an apartment they hadn’t seen, and a foosball table—she devoted herself to helping others in financial trouble. Her tenacity led a colleague to describe her to NPR as a “mom, apple pie, and also a pit bull. You get her in a corner and watch her go.”

In January 2011, Elizabeth Warren recognized Holly’s passion for assisting military families by appointing her the assistant director of service-member affairs at the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a post she still holds. At the bureau, Petraeus has been instrumental in monitoring military families’ complaints, including clamping down on illegal foreclosures on active-duty families that banks had previously gotten away with. In June, she testified in congressional hearings about the hardships facing returning soldiers and their spouses. “In recent years, a number of service members have seen no viable alternative but to leave their family in their ‘underwater’ house [when mortgage is higher than value] and go alone to their new duty station, which may mean a separation of three years or more,” she said. A month later, her work was honored with the first-ever President General’s Medallion for her lifelong commitment to supporting military families at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Continental Congress.

Women thrust under the spotlight of public humiliation have a difficult decision to make. Huma Abedin, Anthony Weiner’s wife, diligently stuck with her husband through his sexting scandal. But Anne Sinclair, after 20 years with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, dumped her scandal-plagued spouse. One career has already been decimated in one of the nation’s most high-profile and top-level cheating scandals in recent memory, but it’s yet to be seen if their marriage will fall victim as well.

“I count my blessings that I accepted a blind date with her 38 years ago,” David Petraeus said in a speech last May. General Petraeus’s misstep has left him without a job. Will it leave him without a wife, too?