- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 31, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a farewell to the military after 37 years in uniform, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus on Wednesday said supporting the troops and their families must be the nation’s “paramount objective” even as defense budgets are reduced.

Spending cuts also must not undercut the versatility and flexibility the Army and other services have developed in fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, he told those at his retirement ceremony on a sun-splashed parade field at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery.

“As our nation contemplates difficult budget decisions, I know that our leaders will remember that our people, our men and women in uniform, are our military,” he said, “and that taking care of them and their families must be our paramount objective. Beyond that, it will be imperative to maintain a force that not only capitalizes on the extraordinary experience and expertise in our ranks today but also maintains the versatility and flexibility that have been developed over the past decade.”

The Pentagon already is preparing to reduce defense spending by upwards of $400 billion over the next 10 years, and Congress may demand even bigger cuts.

Gen. Petraeus looked back over his celebrated career, which began when he was commissioned a second lieutenant after graduating from West Point in June 1974. He recalled the unease he felt on his first day at the military academy and the pride he felt in soldiering for nearly four decades.

He will begin a new chapter next week when he takes over as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, succeeding Leon E. Panetta, who gave up the spy-chief job to become defense secretary last month. Mr. Panetta, who is on vacation in California, did not attend the Petraeus ceremony.

Gen. Petraeus thanked those he has served with and said he leaves with confidence that the nation will avoid unwise decisions on defense spending cuts. He alluded to the difficulties the military faced at the outset of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts in adjusting to counterinsurgency warfare.

“We have relearned since 9/11 the timeless lesson that we don’t always get to fight the wars for which we are most prepared or most inclined,” he said. “Given that reality, we will need to maintain the full-spectrum capability that we have developed over this last decade of conflict.”

The Petraeus ceremony was hosted by Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, who presented the general with a Distinguished Service Medal, and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, who heaped praise on the man who many had expected to succeed Adm. Mullen as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. President Obama instead chose to make Gen. Petraeus his next CIA chief.

Gen. Petraeus, 58, will take over at the spy agency next week. He has said he chose to serve there as a civilian in order not to blur the distinction between the military and the intelligence worlds.

In his remarks, Adm. Mullen called Gen. Petraeus a visionary and a “national treasure.”

“Dave has, over the last decade, advised two presidents, changed the course of two wars, transformed our military and, perhaps most important of all, reminded Americans once again, that with the right ideas and the right leadership, almost anything is possible,” Adm. Mullen said.

Gen. Petraeus will take over at the CIA less than a week before the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Close friends and colleagues of Gen. Petraeus say that when he realized the White House would not make him chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he saw the CIA as the best alternative.

“I wanted this job,” he told senators at his confirmation hearing, saying he had discussed the CIA post with the Obama administration for months.

Gen. Petraeus soared to public acclaim in 2007-08 with his surprising success in reversing an escalation of insurgent violence in Iraq.

At a September 2008 ceremony in Baghdad marking the end of Gen. Petraeus‘ 19 months in command, then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates credited him with dealing a “tremendous, if not mortal, blow” to an insurgency that two years earlier seemed beyond U.S. or Iraqi government control.

“I believe history will regard you as one of our nation’s great battle captains,” Mr. Gates told Gen. Petraeus.

Gen. Petraeus is credited with similarly solidifying gains against the Taliban in Afghanistan, though he himself said progress is “fragile and reversible.”

Gen. Petraeus also is seen as one of the Army’s most accomplished accumulators of personal publicity. The Iraq war made him a household name. A July 2004 Newsweek magazine cover featuring Gen. Petraeus posing in front of a Black Hawk helicopter asked, “Can this man save Iraq?”

Gen. Petraeus sometimes is mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate, although he has said repeatedly he has no interest in politics.

His high public profile, following what most regarded as a successful first tour in Iraq in 2003, triggered some resentment in the Pentagon during Donald H. Rumsfeld’s tenure as defense secretary. For that reason, some saw his next assignment, to the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., as a put-down.

“Various folks had said I’ve been sent to exile at Leavenworth,” a bemused Gen. Petraeus told the Pentagon Channel.

But it was during that assignment in 2005-06 that Gen. Petraeus co-authored with Marine Gen. James Mattis an updated manual on how to fight a counterinsurgency campaign. It was a major success, and not just inside the military. Within a week of publication, the manual was downloaded 1.5 million times.

Gen. Petraeus put those ideas into practice when he was sent back to Baghdad as the top U.S. commander, arriving in February 2007 at a peak of sectarian violence and a low point of U.S. public confidence in the war.

He’s fond of saying that the turnaround he and his troops achieved over the next year and a half was as much about a “surge of ideas” as the surge of extra troops that President George W. Bush ordered to Iraq in January 2007.

One of those ideas was to get American troops off their big, fortified bases and into small outposts throughout Baghdad, where they worked night and day with Iraqi forces to demonstrate U.S. resolve, build hope and confidence among ordinary Iraqis, and gradually reverse the tide of violence. By most accounts, it worked, and Iraq grew stable enough for the Bush administration to negotiate in late 2008 an agreement to withdraw all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

On the heels of that success, Mr. Bush made Gen. Petraeus commander of U.S. Central Command, overseeing all U.S. military operations in the greater Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. And when the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, was abruptly relieved of duty in June 2010 for comments in a magazine story, Mr. Obama asked Gen. Petraeus to take over in Kabul, and the general quickly agreed.

An errant bullet almost cut short his Army career in 1991. One of his soldiers accidentally shot him in the chest during an exercise at Fort Campbell, Ky. He recovered and went on to rise through the ranks in a series of assignments that included executive assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Hugh Shelton, plus stints in Haiti and Bosnia. In 2003, as a two-star general, he took the storied 101st Airborne Division to Iraq.

He recalls the marching order he got from the Army’s chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, before heading to his Fort Leavenworth assignment in 2005.

“‘Shake up the Army, Dave,’” the chief told him. “And we did our best.”