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Petraeus scandal puts military's four-star lifestyle under scrutiny

The Washington Post
Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 01:33 AM

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WASHINGTON -

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stopped bagging his leaves when he moved into a small Washington military enclave in 2007.

His next-door neighbor was Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had a chef, a personal valet and troops to tend his property.

Gates may have been the civilian leader of the world's largest military, but his position did not come with household staff. So, he often joked, he disposed of his leaves by blowing them onto the chairman's lawn.

"I was often jealous because he had four enlisted people helping him all the time," Gates said in response to a question after a speech Thursday. He wryly complained to his wife that "Mullen's got guys over there who are fixing meals for him, and I'm shoving something into the microwave. And I'm his boss."

Of the many facts that have come to light in the scandal involving former CIA Director David Petraeus, among the most curious was that during his days as a four-star general, he was once escorted by 28 police motorcycles as he traveled from his U.S. Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa to socialite Jill Kelley's mansion on Bayshore Boulevard.

Although most of his trips did not involve a presidential-size convoy, the scandal has prompted new scrutiny of the imperial trappings that come with a senior general's lifestyle.

The commanders who lead the nation's military services and those who oversee troops around the world enjoy an array of perquisites befitting a billionaire. They include executive jets, palatial homes, drivers, security guards and aides to carry their bags, press their uniforms and track their schedules in 10-minute increments.

Their food is prepared by gourmet chefs. If they want music with their dinner parties, their staff can summon a string quartet or a choir.

The elite regional commanders who preside over large swaths of the planet don't have to settle for Gulfstream V jets. They each have a C-40, the military equivalent of a Boeing 737, some of which are configured with beds.

"Being a four-star commander in a combat theater is like being a combination of Bill Gates and Jay-Z — with enormous firepower added," said Thomas Ricks, the author of "The Generals," a recently published history of American commanders since World War II.

Some retired generals have defended the benefits accorded to their active-duty brethren, noting many of them work 18-hour days, six to seven days a week. They manage budgets that dwarf those of large multinational companies and are responsible for the lives of thousands of young men and women under their command.

Compared with today's plutocrats, their pay is modest. In 2013, the base salary for a four-star general with at least 38 years of service will be almost $235,000, though federal personnel regulations limit their take-home pay to $179,700.

Unlike top civilians in government, top generals also receive free housing and subsidies for food and uniforms.

When they retire, those who have served at least 40 years get an annual pension that is slightly more than active-duty base pay; this year it is $236,650.

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