TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - A former mosquito-infested swamp occupying a 5,700-acre (2,300-hectare) spit of land on Florida’s west coast, MacDill Air Force base is considered a sought-after posting in the U.S. military.
The base, now at the centre of a spiralling scandal that forced the resignation of former CIA Director David Petraeus, also boasts close civilian ties with the neighbouring city of Tampa, just outside its gates.
Jill Kelley, 37, a Tampa socialite, seemed to embody that civilian bond, and did all she could to make officers and their wives feel right at home.
Those ties are under intense scrutiny because of the behaviour of Petraeus, who became a friend of Kelley during a two-year stint at the base between 2008 and 2010 as head of U.S. Central Command, responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East and South Asia.
Another former deputy commander at MacDill, Marine Corps General John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was caught up in the scandal on Tuesday. Defense officials revealed that he exchanged “flirtatious” emails with Kelley, who had prompted the FBI investigation that led to Petraeus’ resignation over an affair with his biographer.
Defense officials and people close to Petraeus say neither he nor Allen had a romantic relationship with Kelley.
Kelley and her husband, cancer surgeon Scott Kelley, are prominent figures in the city’s informal civilian support network, throwing parties at their imposing home and providing local tips and assistance for military officers and their wives.
Many of the officers were foreigners, operating as military liaisons for countries forming part of the coalition working alongside U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The base offers plenty of perks including warm winter weather, modern housing, its own championship golf course, and proximity to shopping malls and Walt Disney World resort only 90 minutes drive away.
Originally established as an Air Force base during World War Two, MacDill has evolved into the nerve-centre of post-September 11 American combat operations in the Middle East and Asia, housing both CENTCOM and the U.S. Special Operations Command.
The daughter of Lebanese parents, Kelley enjoyed her role as honorary consul, driving around town with a Florida consular license plate ‘JK1’ on her Mercedes. ABC News reported that she has represented South Korea since August.
“I like to think of her as a welcome wagon,” said Aaron Fodiman, the publisher of Tampa Bay Magazine and a friend of the Kelleys.
“When a new general’s wife arrived and said, ‘I want to know where to get my hair done and where to buy a birthday cake for my kids,’ they knew they could call Jill and she would always help them. Everybody called Jill,” he added.
The bonds of friendship were so strong with some officers that they stayed in touch after leaving the base.
Petraeus and Allen even intervened in a bitter child custody case involving the son of Jill Kelley’s identical twin sister, Natalie Khawam, writing letters in her favour in September.
‘MORE GOING ON’
The Kelleys had lots of parties, with tents on the front lawn, said Janna Walker, who lives in an equally grand home a block away.
Walker said military and foreign dignitaries would attend functions and black vans and limos would arrive at the house. “I don’t know if it was Secret Service, but security was around,” Walker said.
Attempts to reach the Kelleys for comment were unsuccessful.
A posting at MacDill, and at CENTCOM in particular, could certainly be described as a choice assignment for a career military officer, CENTCOM spokesman Mark Blackington said.
“For a military person, they want to go somewhere where the action is,” he said. “We’ve got a war going on and that kind of thing, and I think it would be considered desirable.”
Then there are Tampa’s famous strip clubs. Warren Colazzo, a co-owner of the club known as Thee Doll House, where a Sarah Palin lookalike was the star attraction during the Republican National Convention in August, said his customers include a fair number of military personnel based at MacDill.
“Anybody from the military gets in for free,” he said of the club’s military-friendly policies.
Together with the 6th Air Mobility Wing and the 927th Air Refuelling Wing, the base employs 15,000 active duty personnel and has an estimated $2.8 billion economic impact on the Tampa Bay area.
“Tampa is an Air Force town!” declares MacDill’s website. Few in the city of 350,000 would disagree. City and county officials work hand-in-hand with the Pentagon to augment the base’s role.
The city is in a battle with dozens of other bases around the country to house some of the next generation Air Force KC-46A refuelling tanker jets.
“We have had a long history of mutual support,” said Pam Iorio, a former Tampa mayor, citing innumerable banquets and receptions she attended at MacDill and events hosted by the city for military officers.
The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce hosts an annual military appreciation banquet, and each November the city invites foreign military families to a coalition Thanksgiving dinner at the Tampa Convention Center.
Iorio frequently attended parties at the Kelleys’ home, or saw the couple with Petraeus at military receptions on the base, but says she never heard of any improper conduct.
“That’s not the way in which Tampa interacts with the military. It’s a very respectful relationship, one of appreciation for their service to our country, and it’s really deeply embedded in our community,” she said.
She was as shocked as anyone to learn of Petraeus’ affair, especially after she included glowing references to him in a book she wrote, titled ‘Straightforward: Ways to Live and Lead.’
“He seemed like such a good leader,” she said.
The Kelleys’ financial standing has also come into question. According to county court documents, the Kelleys owe $2 million to a bank on a foreclosed office building in downtown Tampa, and another bank is seeking to foreclose on their home, saying the couple owes $1.7 million. The couple also have outstanding debts of more than $25,000 each on credit cards.
The scandal is the talk of the town, said Keith Bowman, a retired wounded Vietnam veteran, who lives half the year at an RV campground for retired military and defense workers on MacDill.
He and his wife often worked out at the base gym in the mornings at the same time as the Petraeuses, and occasionally ran into them at Cellini, a nearby restaurant.
“Everybody respected the guy,” said Bowman. “He was a great general. But now?”
Additional reporting by Tom Brown; Writing by David Adams; Editing by David Lindsey, Mary Milliken and Mohammad Zargham