John P Wheeler III

I was stunned to learn tonight that my long-time friend Jack Wheeler has been murdered in Delaware. He was last seen getting off an Amtrak train from Washington at the Wilmington, DE, station this past Tuesday night; then, as a gruesome and cryptic local story recounts, his body was found nearby in a landfill on New Year's Eve.

Here is Jack in the early 1980s, when I first got to know him. Below, a more recent picture.


pic-jack-150.jpgIf you read Rick Atkinson's book The Long Gray Line, about the West Point Class of 1966, you will know something of Wheeler's  story. Generations-long military-officer heritage; West Point '66 grad; service in Vietnam; then Harvard Business School and Yale Law School; and a rest-of-his-life effort to address what he called the "40 year open wound" of Vietnam-era soldiers being spurned by the society that sent them to war.

I worked with Jack on a book called Touched With Fire, about the post-war experiences of people who were in uniform during Vietnam and people who (like me) were actively opposing the war. He was chairman of the committee that got the Vietnam Veterans Memorial built. That is now taken as a great, triumphant icon of commemorative architecture, but at the time the "black gash of shame" was bitterly controversial, and Jack Wheeler was in the middle of the controversy -- raising money, getting approvals, collecting allies and placating critics until the wall was built. A few days before it opened he called to invite me to be one of the readers who would, over a long stretch of hours, take turns saying aloud the names of every person recorded on the wall.

He was a complicated man of very intense (and sometimes changeable) friendships, passions, and causes. His most recent crusade was to bring ROTC back to elite campuses, as noted here. That is what I was corresponding with him about  in recent months. To be within email range of Jack was to look forward to frequent, lengthy, often urgent-sounding and often overwrought dispatches on the state of the struggle. Late at night on Christmas Day, I was surprised to see this simple note from him:
>>Jim, Merry Christmas, Old Friend. Onward and upward.

I replied -- thank goodness!, I now think -- and assumed I would hear more from him soon on the ROTC struggle.

I have no idea what kind of trouble he may have encountered. As a lawyer quoted in the Delaware Online story said, "This is just not the kind of guy that gets murdered." I feel terrible for his family and hope they will eventually find comfort in knowing how many important things he achieved.