Petraeus Stumbles Off the Stage

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Marco Grob for Time

David Petraeus

It was a little more than a year ago that Dave Petraeus stopped by Time’s Washington bureau so we could chat with him about what 9/11 meant to him. He spoke glowingly of the soldiers he served alongside. “Our country has an enormous debt of gratitude to these individuals,” he said. “We can never thank them or their families enough.” (see it here). He was typically earnest and well-spoken, his Princeton Ph.D. well hidden behind his aw-shucks demeanor.

He stepped down as director of the CIA Friday due to what he told agency employees was his “extremely poor judgment” for engaging in an extra-marital affair. But that blot shouldn’t mask his considerable accomplishments.

Tom Ricks, author of the new book The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, told Battleland last week that he believes Petraeus is the best post-9/11 commander the U.S. military has had.

“I have a lot of sympathy for him. He was sent to both Iraq and Afghanistan to try to clean up the messes [Army General Tommy] Franks had made…He was able to think strategically. And he was able to adapt, to change,” Ricks said. His negotiations with with Iraq Sunnis to stop fighting “was a case of risk taking—and prudent risk-taking is all too rare in our generals these days.”

Petraeus’ wife of 37 years, Holly, is the daughter of an Army general who was the superintendent at the U.S. Military Academy when young Petraeus was a cadet there. They married two months after his graduation from West Point in 1974. The couple has two children, including a son who served in Afghanistan with the Army. Today, Holly is an assistant director in charge of servicemember affairs in the federal government’s newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

There will be plenty of debate over what happened, and why Petraeus chose now to leave. The Internet is already abuzz with speculation that it had something to do with the CIA’s role – or lack of a role – in the 9/11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other U.S. officials. Plainly, his military bearing upset some CIA folks. There were grumbles when he didn’t attend the funeral of the two agency employees killed in Benghazi.

But it’s just as important to acknowledge that Petraeus’ soldiers, by most accounts, loved him. And the feeling was mutual.

“I’ve been privileged to command organizations that are absolutely full of wonderful men and women in uniform,” he told us last year, “who are supported by equally wonderful family members back home.”