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Tampa temptations conquer war horses
- Heady cocktail of power and celebrity

Tampa (Florida), Nov. 14: Everybody loves to serve in this spit of land, which was once mosquito-infested.

The spectacular view of the water on Bayshore Boulevard, the city’s most fashionable street, and the warm weather must be among the attractions. Another must be the unusual side-by-side location of two heavyweight commands: the Central Command (CentCom), which runs America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Special Operations Command, which trains commandos for missions like the one that killed Osama bin Laden.

But an unstated and irresistible reason could be the lady who drives around town with a consular licence plate “JK1” on her Mercedes. JK stands for Jill Kelley, described as “welcome wagon” by a friend in acknowledgement of her social graces.

The Kelleys’ lavish parties, with extravagant buffets, flowing champagne, valet parking and cigars, at their huge redbrick home were the talk of the town.

Guests from the nearby MacDill Air Force Base included David H. Petraeus and Gen. John R. Allen, who now commands troops in Afghanistan. The base, now at the centre of a spiralling scandal that forced the resignation of Petraeus as CIA director, boasts close civilian ties with the neighbouring city of Tampa, just outside its gates.

Jill, 37, a vivacious 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 Jill and Scott Kelly during a two-year stint at the base between 2008 and 2010 as head of Central Command.

Another former deputy commander at MacDill, Marine Corps Gen. Allen was caught up in the scandal on Tuesday. Defence officials revealed that he exchanged “flirtatious” emails with Jill, who had prompted the FBI investigation that led to Petraeus’s resignation over an affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell. Officials said that in one email sent from Paula’s account to an account shared by Jill and her husband, the writer claimed to have watched Jill touching Petraeus underneath a table.

But defence officials and people close to Petraeus say neither he nor Allen had a romantic relationship with Jill.

Kelley and her husband, cancer surgeon Scott, are prominent figures in the city’s informal civilian support network, throwing parties and providing local tips for officers and their wives.

Many of the officers were foreigners, operating as military liaisons for countries forming part of the coalition working alongside US 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 a 90-minute drive away.

Originally established as an air force base during World War II, MacDill has evolved into the nerve-centre of post-9/11 American combat operations. The CentCom commander is typically a local star.

“He was looked at like the CEO of Chrysler is in Detroit,” said Roger Maddox, a retired military officer who lives here. “Bigger than the mayor. His existence is what brings so much money to the community.”

The daughter of Lebanese parents, Jill enjoyed her role as honorary consul. “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.

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 events 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.

In February 2010, a gossip column in The Tampa Bay Times reported that Petraeus and his wife arrived escorted by 28 police officers on motorcycles to a pirate-themed party at the Kelleys’ home, to mark Tampa’s Gasparilla Pirate Fest, an annual event. Guests dined on lamb chops and crab cakes, beside hot dog and funnel cake carts, the paper said.

But some here were a bit suspicious of Jill. Tampa is, at heart, a conservative southern city whose most prominent citizens have lived here for decades. The Kelleys, who moved in a decade ago, are still regarded as newcomers.

They were often seen at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club. Jill and her sister raised eyebrows for their 2003 appearance on a Food Network reality show, Food Fight.

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. They also ran a cancer charity, which appears to be defunct.

While other prominent Tampa residents were supporting the military in other ways — raising money for wounded veterans, waving flags as a way of showing respect, helping military children with medical needs — the Kelleys stuck mostly to social events, said Pam Iorio, the former mayor.

When foreign dignitaries visited Central Command, the command’s generals could count on the Kelleys to host a dinner in the dignitaries’ honour. Even as news of Jill’s connection to the emerging Petraeus scandal began spreading Sunday evening, the deputy commander of the Central Command, Vice-Adm. Robert S. Harward, was attending a party at her bayside home.

MacDill Air Force Base is a driving force behind the Tampa economy. The local Chamber of Commerce estimates $6.7 billion a year flows into the Tampa Bay area from the base. Military contractors and other defence-related companies dot the city. Business deals are often made in the plentiful strip clubs and steakhouses.

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.

“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.

Iorio, the former mayor, 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’s 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.

Reuters and NYTNS


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