TAMPA — Marine Gen. John R. Allen served at MacDill Air Force Base in the shadow of a boss with a household name and a reputation for courting good press — Gen. David Petraeus.
Allen now shares an uncomfortable spotlight with his former commander at U.S. Central Command.
Allen, 58, is the subject of a Pentagon investigation about thousands of emails he exchanged with Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, who helped bring to light Petraeus' affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
Allen's pending nomination as U.S. European and NATO commander is on hold.
Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, served at CentCom headquarters as deputy commander for nearly three years ending in June 2011, most of that time under Petraeus. Allen then served as CentCom's acting commander for six weeks after Petraeus' departure.
MacDill commanders have a tradition of forging ties to the Tampa Bay community during their relatively short two- to three-year stints in Tampa.
But owing to the demands of the job, the kind of personal ties Petraeus and Allen apparently made with Kelley are surprising to those who attend military functions around Tampa Bay.
"They're usually way too busy for those sorts of things," said David Braun, a founder of Haley House Fund, a local charity.
It's not as if, he said, you will run into someone like Allen or Petraeus at the local Walmart.
CentCom leaders, who live on base, work at a blistering pace. For the commander, travel is a near constant, either to the Middle East or Washington. And when the chief leaves MacDill's protective bubble, the logistics can be daunting. They often travel with several aides and a security contingent.
CentCom and other MacDill leaders still manage to attend events both inside and outside MacDill. Both generals visited local veterans hospitals or charitable events.
Local business leaders and political officials sometimes were invited to dinner with CentCom's commander. Charles Brown, a Tampa businessman who frequently volunteers at the base, attended such a dinner with Petraeus and his wife. "It was a nice opportunity to see him," Brown said, "because you don't get the chance to see them much. They don't have a lot of free time."
Those who have met Allen said he has a talent for making civilians feel at ease.
Gerard Abbett, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Brandon and volunteers for a local military charity, said Allen noticed him at a function and walked over and gave him a big hug. "I said, 'General, when I was in the military, I couldn't get within 30 feet of someone like you,' " Abbett said.
A Virginia native, Allen is a 1976 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a love of military history. He joined the Marine Corps as an infantry officer and received a master's degree from Georgetown University.
"Allen is more professor and Southern gentleman than hard-bitten Marine general," a May Washington Post profile said. "He is unfailing polite and prone to measured locution. He devours tomes of military history while others are in bed — he sleeps only about four hours a night — and he sets aside several hours each week 'to think about big ideas.' "
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.