Petraeus delivers keynote to medical transport conference
Keynote speaker retired Gen. David Petraeus looked out over hundreds of people in the audience via two video screens and asked how many had served in the military.
In a large ballroom at the Virginia Beach Convention Center, every third or fourth person raised their hand.
That's not a surprise, Petraeus told attendees at the Air Medical Transport Conference on Wednesday. He thanked those who had worn the uniform for their service and the rest for what they do in their "sacred task." He drew resounding applause.
In this way, Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan and is widely credited with turning the tide of the war in Iraq, drew in his audience of hundreds of helicopter pilots and emergency medical professionals.
The speech was part of the four-star general's public rehabilitation.
Petraeus resigned from his post as head of the CIA in November after admitting to an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. He has since become a visiting professor in New York and California and, in March, signed on to chair a new institute with the global private equity firm KKR.
Prompting laughter and sharing war stories, he brought the audience to their feet after a speech that praised the medical transport community, calling it "a profession that does truly noble work."
"You really are angels to those who are injured seriously, whose lives often are at stake," he told them.
Petraeus was supposed to appear in person, but because of an "international commitment" spoke via videoconference from Washington, where a flight awaited him.
The general was not paid to appear. He said his own experiences -- being saved by a medevac crew after a gunshot wound to the chest during training years ago, then overseeing medevac units in Iraq and Afghanistan -- compelled him to speak at the conference.
Petraeus was a young battalion commander at Fort Campbell in Kentucky when he took the bullet.
"It thankfully went over the 'A' in Petraeus rather than the 'A' in Army, or the outcome would have been quite different pretty quickly," he said, prompting laughter.
A helicopter reached him within 15 minutes, taking him to the base hospital for stabilization before he was flown to Vanderbilt Hospital. There, a young Bill Frist, who went on to become Senate majority leader, operated on him.
Petraeus said he jokes that he was "dying" to meet Frist.
"You've got to work with me here," he told the audience. "You know when you reach my station in life, you are only as good as the material they give you."
Again, the room broke into laughter.
When Petraeus fractured his pelvis during a skydiving accident a decade later, he was moved by ambulance. He wished he'd asked for an air evacuation, he said, because he felt "every bump" on that ride.
In his last decade in uniform, Petraeus spent almost seven years deployed to war zones.
Combat really drove home, he said, the vital role played by frontline medics and the crews who evacuate casualties.
The 30-minute speech came on the final day of a three-day gathering that brought together about 2,300 U.S. and foreign attendees.
Afterward, Petraeus took questions. No one brought up the scandal.
Joel Kozlowski, a former military helicopter pilot who now runs the helicopter program at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, said he flew Petraeus around Iraq during the 2007 surge.
Kozlowski said he had enormous respect for the general, who would fly on missions over Sadr City without the protection of anti-missile flares because the flares, which sometimes fell on houses, might antagonize people whose support Petraeus was seeking.
"I just found him to be a very exceptional, competent military commander," Kozlowski said. "He was very involved at the soldier level. He managed a tough problem. I don't think too many commanders could do what he did."
Asked about the scandal, Kozlowski shrugged. "It's none of my business," he said.