Now that Paula Broadwell's affair with Gen. David Petraeus is public knowledge, one of the many names critics are calling her is "military groupie." This is hardly a new concept — members of the military and their partners were discussing the supposed threat of "military groupies" long before anyone outside the FBI knew about Petraeus's infidelity.
The "military groupie," as referenced on military message boards, is a woman who spends time near military bases and at military hangouts, hoping to meet and perhaps marry a man in uniform. Discussions of such groupies online can smack of stereotype, but one expert says military officers can, for some people, have the same draw as celebrities.
Janice Laurence, a psychologist who studies the military, says she personally understands the appeal of officers like Petraeus: "my heroes tend to be not the stars in Hollywood; they tend to be people in the military." Someone like Broadwell, who also served in the military, might well feel similarly. And while most people never do anything about their hero-worship of military officers, she can see why Broadwell might have crossed the line: "You wouldn't risk almost everything for just the guy next door, but for someone with four stars, who's head of the CIA, you might feel a little drunk with power yourself by just being next to that person." She hasn't heard the term "military groupie," but she is familiar with the concept, and says it extended down to cadets as well — she says women from surrounding areas sometimes spend time around West Point, hoping to date a man with a bright military future.
Discussion boards tend to paint "military groupies" as opportunistic and indiscriminate. "What do you do when you encounter a woman that seems to be hunting for a uniform?" asks a Military.com user in a forum post dated 2008. She explains, "I overheard a conversation between women coordinating this weekend to find themselves military men." And on the forum True Military Wives Confessions, a 2009 post reads, "my hubby mentioned to not hang out at a particular bar/restaurant because that is where Military GROUPIES hang out!! [...] AND THEN my hubby proceeds to tell me that some military groupies get married to like 5 -6 men in 4 years ALL MILITARY!"
The reality may be less extreme. A military wife who asked to remain anonymous told me she knows of one woman who said she was pregnant by a member of the Air Force, then confessed she was lying. "It wasn’t the glory of the military life she was seeking," this woman explained. Rather, she wanted to marry him for his health benefits. Besides, "being with a soldier is pretty much like being with anyone else," this military wife says. "Their job doesn’t define them as much as one might think."
Vanessa, who blogs about life as a Canadian military spouse, says her husband and his fellow service members refer to groupies by the less-polite term "shack rats." She married her husband before he entered the military and has never considered herself a groupie. But "now with the negative Facebook pages and stereotypes that are out there," she sometimes worries about being seen as one. She and her husband have discussed groupies, "but more as a laugh because the concept is funny to us. Why would someone hang around a base?" It's "baffling to me," she says — and other military spouses have pointed out that frequent deployments and worry over a spouse's safety may not be something to seek out.
Of course, someone like Petraeus would have more cachet than the average service member. Business ethicist Dean Ludwig, author of an essay [PDF] on the pitfalls of leadership that's been getting media play since the scandal broke, says, "When people rise to positions of power they are almost by definition going to be faced with a variety of temptations or opportunities for transgression." Those opportunities include admirers. Ludwig cites John Edwards (the mother of his child, Rielle Hunter, happens to live near Paula Broadwell), and says, "The higher you go, probably the more attractive of a target you are."
And, of course, the attentions of an admiring fan can be attractive too. Laurence says that for officers, "If you say, 'I love a man in uniform,' it strokes their ego." She believes members of the military are actually less likely to be unfaithful than others in similar situations, because "they take ethics very seriously." But the more people in any walk of life are idolized by those around them, the more they may act like the fallible humans they are.