John Wheeler III

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John Wheeler was one of those outer planets in the capital's solar system, never drawing too close to the sun but riding the country's business in an elliptical orbit that would bring him close to the heat every once in a while. I remember discussing the plight of Vietnam veterans with him as well as pondering the threat that cyberwar posed to the U.S. Sure, the topics were 180 degrees apart, but that's the kind of Renaissance man Wheeler was.

While he never saw combat during his Army service in Vietnam, Wheeler--whose death at 66 was ruled a homicide after his body was found Dec. 31--felt that the war's veterans had been ignored by their country, and he joined with Jan Scruggs to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington. Initially derided as a "black gash of shame," it has become one of the nation's most visited and beloved monuments since its opening nearly 30 years ago.

Wheeler, a data-driven man who cycled between government jobs and the private sector, marshaled facts against U.S. use of biological weapons while also testing nuclear-war plans. More recently he wrote about what he saw as a dearth of Medals of Honor being awarded to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was vintage Wheeler, a stew of pride, patriotism and math. Championing the unheralded valor of unknown soldiers young enough to have been his grandchildren: that is Jack Wheeler's legacy.