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Holly Petraeus: An Army Wife Takes Command

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Holly Petraeus: An Army Wife Takes Command


Holly Petraeus: An Army Wife Takes Command

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now, Congress created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year as part of its overhaul of the financial system. And as part of that also, Congress established a body to focus on the unique financial needs of military members and their families. One of the first people hired was Holly Petraeus, who will lead the new Office of Servicemember Affairs.

NPR's Tamara Keith has a profile.

TAMARA KEITH: If the name Holly Petraeus sounds familiar - particularly the Petraeus part - there's a good reason.

Ms. HOLLY PETRAEUS (Office of Servicemember Affairs): I am married to General David Petraeus, the commander in Afghanistan.

KEITH: General Petraeus is a celebrity general, respected by people on both sides of the political aisle. And when it comes to protecting the financial interests of military families, Holly Petraeus is a force, too.

Mr. ROD DAVIS (Better Business Bureau): She's mom, apple pie, and she's also a pit bull. You get her in your corner, and watch her go.

KEITH: Rod Davis worked with Petraeus for six years at the Better Business Bureau, where she led the Military Line program. The program provides financial education and consumer advocacy for service members.

Mr. DAVIS: She looks very mild-mannered. She looks very conservative, very reserved. But she's very passionate, and I think it's her passion for what she does that makes her so effective.

KEITH: That passion grows out of a lifetime of experience. Petraeus is the daughter of a general. Her son, brother, grandfather and great-grandfather all served in the armed forces. And she's been a military wife for more than 35 years. It's something that helps her connect with service members, like those at a listening session she held at Joint Base San Antonio back in January.

Ms. HOLLY PETRAEUS (Appointed Director, Office of Servicemember Affairs, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau): I know sometimes when I talk to military audiences, at this point - although my husband is, obviously, still active duty -I know you out there in the audience look at me and think, that lady is really old; how could she possibly know what we're going through?

KEITH: But she tells them the Petraeuses were a young military couple once.

Ms. PETRAEUS: I know, hard to believe, but it was a while ago. And we did some of the things that, you know, I don't recommend people do now - which is, you know, buy the hot sports car; you know, sign the contract for the apartment sight unseen because they sent us a good-looking brochure.

KEITH: Petraeus knows the unique difficulties faced by military families firsthand. She's moved 23 times in 36 years, and spent countless months raising a family essentially on her own, while her husband was deployed. She says the military is a targeted population because service members are often young and financially inexperienced. They get a steady paycheck and under military rules, can be forced to pay their debts.

Ms. PETRAEUS: Outside most large military installations, there's a strip, and it has the buy-here-pay-here car lots, the pawn shops, the check cashers, in some cases the payday lenders. A new one on me, when we went down to Norfolk recently, was a place where you can rent rims for your car.

KEITH: Steering service members away from bad financial decisions is one of the many things Petraeus will work on in her new job, as head of the Office of Servicemember Affairs. How she got to this job is a story in itself.

Ms. PETRAEUS: I have a very non-standard resume.

KEITH: When she was first married, Petraeus worked an assortment of random civil service jobs at the bases where her husband was stationed. Then she took time off to do the mom thing, and did volunteer work at the Army posts. Some 20 years later, without even applying, she was offered a job at the Better Business Bureau.

Ms. PETRAEUS: Any military spouse listening should be heartened by me because I am true evidence that years of volunteering can actually translate into a paid job.

KEITH: And then late last year, Petraeus went to talk to Elizabeth Warren, who's setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, about what the bureau should be doing for military families. It wasn't a job interview but Warren said she was so impressed, she knew immediately Petraeus should head the office of Servicemember Affairs. Others agree.

Ms. KATIE SAVANT (Government Relations, National Military Family Association): They have the right person in the right place in terms of having Mrs. Petraeus.

KEITH: Katie Savant does government relations for the National Military Family Association. And she says it's still not entirely clear what the new office is going to do. Savant says there are already numerous other programs out there, designed to help military families navigate financial pitfalls and report rip-offs.

Ms. SAVANT: I think there's some redundant programs that are out there now. And we hope that this new office will not be a redundant program, and that it will actually kind of provide one, centralized place for the information.

KEITH: The Office of Servicemember Affairs opens for business in July. And one thing it will have, that many of these other programs do not, is the power to enforce consumer protections - that and, as one friend put it, the power of Holly Petraeus.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington.

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