David Petraeus apologized Tuesday for the extramarital affair that led to his resignation as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency last November in his first public speech since then.
Petraeus was invited a year ago -- before the scandal broke -- to be the keynote speaker before 600 guests at the University of Southern California annual ROTC dinner.
The retired four-star general has remained out of the public eye since the revelations of the affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, but decided to keep this appointment.
“It truly is a privilege to be here with you this evening -- all the more so given my personal journey over the past five months,” he said. “I join you keenly aware that I am regarded in a different light now than I was a year ago … I'm also keenly aware that the reason for my recent journey was my own doing,” he said Tuesday night.
“So please allow me to begin my remarks this evening by reiterating how deeply I regret and apologize for the circumstances that led to my resignation from the CIA and caused such pain for my family, friends and supporters,” he added.
Petraeus then stressed that the evening was “not about me,” but the cadets, active duty military and veterans from USC and efforts to support them.
He said that the post 9/11 generation of veterans deserved to be known as America’s greatest generation. More could and should be done to help veterans, particularly those with physical injuries and mental health problems, he argued.
'Instructive' to others who stumble
The general said that hanging up the uniform and leaving comrades behind was difficult, and returned to the reasons for his departure at the end of his speech.
“As I close, I want to take this opportunity to say thank you as well to those who provided words of encouragement to my family and me in recent months. That support meant a great deal as we sought to look forward rather than backward,” Petraeus said.
“This has obviously been a very difficult episode for us. But perhaps my experience can be instructive to others who stumble or indeed fall as far as I did. One learns, after all, that life doesn't stop with such a mistake. It can, and must, go on,” he said.
“And the effort to move forward over the rocky path of one's making is vital, inescapable, and ultimately worth it,” he added. “I know that I can never fully assuage the pain that I inflicted on those closest to me and a number of others. I can, however, try to move forward in a manner that is consistent with the values to which I subscribed before slipping my moorings, and as best possible to make amends to those I have hurt and let down, and that is what I will strive to do.”
The discovery of Petraeus’ affair came after another woman, Florida socialite Jill Kelley, complained to the FBI that she was receiving harassing emails from Broadwell.
The ensuing bureau investigation revealed a string of emails indicating an affair between Petraeus and Broadwell.
In a letter to the CIA workforce announcing his decision to step down last fall, Petraeus acknowledged "extremely poor judgment" and said, "such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours."
Days after the high-profile resignation, President Barack Obama announced there was no reason to believe the ex-CIA director compromised national security or divulged classified information to Broadwell, who had unprecedented access to the general while writing his biography.
And supporters like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., maintained that the personal transgression should not have led to Petraeus' departure.
With the former high-profile military leader's resignation came the end of a nearly four-decade career in the military and intelligence.
As a commander in the U.S. Army, Petraeus was largely credited with salvaging the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and helping develop U.S. counterinsurgency strategy.
He was one of the most popular military commanders in modern history, and was talk about as a future presidential candidate.
Tuesday's speech may mark the beginning of attempts by the 60-year-old Petraeus to rebuild his image. His appearance in front of former and future members of the armed services made for a friendly audience.
USC president C. L. Max Nikias praised Petraeus ahead of his appearance at the university.
“In our post 9/11 world, Gen. Petraeus’ influence on our military is unmatched, and his contributions to the CIA are far-reaching,” Nikias said.
“Gen. Petraeus is arguably the most effective military commander since Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower,” he added.
NBC News' Denise Ono and Ian Johnston contributed to this report.