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American Homefront

How Jill Kelley Became Friends with Two Four-Star Generals: Petraeus and Allen

Amy Scherzer
Tampa Bay Times

The Petraeus sex scandal not only cost the CIA director his job, it has generated a lot of interest in the general’s time as commander at U.S. Central Command in Tampa. And it spawned an investigation of a second general, John Allen, over email exchanges with a Tampa woman.

Many outside the Tampa community are questioning how two four-star generals like Petraeus and Allen could have become friends with a socialite like Jill Kelley.

A broader look at Tampa’s military and civilian communities gives some insight.

Among the many titles Jill Kelley has claimed – from honorary counsel to honorary ambassador – is the designation as a "Friend of MacDill."

The “Friends of MacDill” program was started in 2010 by former MacDill Air Force Base commander Col. Lenny Richoux, who talked with WUSF in May.

“My number one job when I wake up in the morning is base security,” Richoux said. “Is the base secure? I can absolutely tell you that it is, but at the same time I want to open it up.”

During his two-year tenure as base commander, Richoux reached out to hundreds of civic leaders, elected officials and other military advocates. He invited them to visit the base and volunteer.

His philosophy was that the base belonged to the taxpayers. So, he started the MacDill Friends program.

Credit MacDill AFB
Col. Lenny Richoux, as commander of MacDill Air Force Base from July 2010-July 2012, started the Friends of MacDill program.

“Basically, I am vouching for you to come on my base. I meet you. I shake your hand. I get to know you. I tell you about the base. You express interest,” Richoux said. “And then we vet you through a security process. Then we grant you access to the base for a limited period of time.”

Jill Kelley got one of those “Friends” passes that allowed her access to the base during daylight hours. Former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio received a “Friends of MacDill” pass too, but hasn’t used it.

“It’s a nice goodwill thing to do to say, 'hey you’re welcome on the base',” Iorio said. “The one thing that I regret from all this brouhaha that has cropped up over this one couple that has opened up their home to have parties for the military and that’s a very generous thing to do. But it does not typify nor does it represent the relationship of our community to MacDill Air Force Base.”

Iorio attended parties at the Kelley’s house as mayor. She said what’s not getting out is how the community supports MacDill and military families in so many other ways, like volunteering at the James A. Haley VA Hospital and the Bayshore Patriots waving flags every Friday on Bayshore since the 9-11 attacks.

One volunteer working with families from CENTCOM’s International Coalition is Tampa resident Dena Leavengood. She unofficially started helping families find schools and get drivers licenses soon after 9-11 when officers from 69 countries and their families were brought into MacDill.

“Since then, I’ve been passed down from family to family particularly among the Asian coalition representatives and recently in the last year I’ve also gotten more involved with our American military stationed at MacDill,” Leavengood said.

Whether international or American an estimated 80 percent of MacDill’s military families live off base – so they’re next door neighbors and their kids go to the same schools.

“We’ve become friends with them because they’re neighbors and that is also true for some of the stationed troops here as well as the officers,” Leavengood said. “The fact that anybody in our community might have relationships with any number of people at MacDill and particularly since we have so many retirees here or people who are former military, we’re all neighbors. We all live together.”

So seeing photographs of Jill Kelley with David and Holly Petraeus during a Gasparilla Parade is not a novelty to many in Tampa. The military and civilian communities are intertwined.

Former Mayor Iorio has talked with several reporters from national news organizations hoping they’ll give a more “well rounded” view of MacDill and Tampa.

“I think they kind of shorthand it all, social functions and MacDill, parties and MacDill and it just goes way beyond that,” Iorio said. “So many people have done a lot of volunteer work for MacDill and for our service men and women and that’s appreciated to me that’s really the nuts and bolts of how we operate as community.”

Iorio said Tampa and MacDill’s reputations will withstand the scandal and she expects the relationship between the city and its Air Force base to remain strong.

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