Holly Knowlton Petraeus ’74 Keeps A Watchful Eye On Service Members' Financial Health
by Sherri Kimmel
April 1, 2011
Holly Knowlton Petraeus ’74 greets a Marine at U.S. Central Command Headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
Imagine knowing any members of the brainy bunch who populate Foreign Policy magazine’s list of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.
Now imagine living—or working—with one. Holly Knowlton Petraeus ’74 does both. Holly’s husband is Gen. David Petraeus, ranked eighth on the magazine’s 2010 list for his command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Her boss, Elizabeth Warren, landed at No. 24 for “putting the spotlight on America’s debt binge.”
Warren is a Harvard Law professor and assistant to President Barack Obama who’s been tasked with opening the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on July 21. In January, she tapped Holly Petraeus to head up the Office of Servicemember Affairs.
“One of our big initiatives is financial education—to educate the military so they know a bad loan from a good one,” explains Petraeus. While assembling a small staff, she’s out and about “talking to the military, listening, learning about the issues so we can really hit the ground running in July.”
Newly enlisted service members often are targets of unscrupulous lenders arrayed around the big bases where basic training occurs, she’s learned. “We hear stories of young troops buying laptops and paying in the end over $3,000 for one that should cost around $700,” says Petraeus. “It’s an inflated price to begin with, and the financing adds a lot of expense.”
Deployment also complicates finances for military families. “In this Internet age, sometimes you find the spouses [left behind] spending money at home, but the servicemember also is spending money by computer while deployed. That message isn’t being communicated,” she explains.
“Another issue is just the loss of income when they move,” says Petraeus, who’s done so 23 times since her 1974 marriage. Family finances may be destabilized while the nonmilitary spouse seeks a job near the new posting or if selling a home at the old post proves difficult.
The challenges are familiar to Petraeus, who’d spent the last six years as a consumer advocate for military families—directing BBB Military Line for the Better Business Bureau (BBB)—and her entire life as a member of the military community.
Not only is she the wife of a four-star general, but she’s the daughter of one. William Knowlton was superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point when David Petraeus was a cadet who had his eye on the general’s daughter.
“We met at a football game in October of our respective senior years,” she recalls. That year, Holly also stood out as the most fluent student in her French Renaissance Theatre class, according to her former professor, Enrique Martinez-Vidal. When his recollection is relayed, Petraeus smiles and says, “Well, I had an edge.” She burnished that authentic accent during her father’s early-1960s posting in Tunisia.
A month after graduation, the Petraeuses married. And she began to compile a very unorthodox resume. “We moved very rapidly to very small Army posts, and all I could find were lower-level civil-service jobs,” she says. “Then, once I had kids [Anne ’04, a graduate student in public health, and Stephen, an Army officer], I spent about 20 years basically using my energies as a volunteer and not getting a paycheck from anybody.”
In 2004, the BBB “took a chance on me, and I kind of moved into this current phase of my life—being a military consumer advocate,” she notes. “Certainly, there was no master plan. Some people find their passion in life and work right out of college. For me, it was a long evolution, and here I am today.”
“Here” is an office in the thick of the action in Washington, D.C. Having just moved in, her walls are bare, but she’s brought a few desk decorations—challenge coins, the personal morale builders that unit commanders give out to reward excellence and foster unit cohesion.
“Here” also can be any of the nation’s far-flung military bases. Her first week on the job, Petraeus traveled with Warren to Lackland Air Force Base, a joint base in San Antonio, Texas, where they talked with enlisted persons, service providers and counselors about financial challenges germane to the military.
Like her boss, Petraeus interacts comfortably—speaking distinctly, directly and plainly.
In recent years, Petraeus has quietly raised her profile, but she did find herself in the spotlight another time. In 1995, she was a Jeopardy contestant. “I had the misfortune to play the guy who went on to be the five-time champion,” she says with a grin. “Plus I had a handicap. I was short, and they made me stand on a box. I think I should have gotten additional points for balancing.”
One balancing act she would not choose is that of president’s spouse. To the speculation that David Petraeus will run for president, she says, leaning forward in her office chair, “It’s funny because he keeps saying no, and some people don’t seem to hear that. Let me reiterate it here. No, he’s not interested. No, I don’t aspire for him to do that either. The spotlight on people now is unrelenting, with the 24-hour media and everybody having cell phones, blogging, video capability.”
But technology does have its advantages when your husband is away at war. Her father spent two years in Vietnam, sending letters and placing an occasional phone call home through a ham-radio operator. “It sounds like the dark ages now,” she admits. “It is really nice to be able to sit down and e-mail my husband and get an answer right away from the other side of the world.”
Having spent her whole life as a military daughter and spouse, Petraeus says she feels privileged. “I think it’s a great group of people to live among and have the opportunity to do and see so many things, to travel the world. There’s a reason why military kids go on to be military members. It’s partly because of the great models they have and the great community they live in. I want to convey that pride I have in being a part of that.”
Listen to to audio from Sherri Kimmel's interview with Holly Petraeus.