HE WAS a West Point-trained Vietnam War vet who spent the last three years of the George W. Bush administration as a top Air Force official working on highly sensitive projects like cyberwarfare that could be used against adversaries like Iran.

But that was just one résumé line in the remarkable career of John Wheeler III, 66 - a driving force behind the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, first chief executive of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and ex-secretary of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Friends and authorities also said Wheeler could be hard-charging and contentious - as evidenced by a bitter, years-long and very public dispute with a neighbor in Old New Castle, Del., his primary home.

Sometime last week, someone murdered Wheeler, authorities said, and apparently threw his body in a Dumpster. The cause of death is still being investigated.

Initial reports had said Wheeler was supposed to have taken an Amtrak train from Washington to Wilmington, but as of last night it was unclear if he ever boarded.

In fact, no one has been able to account for Wheeler's whereabouts between last Tuesday and 10 a.m. Friday, when his body was found.

The shocking discovery was made on New Year's Eve morning, when Wheeler's remains were dumped at Wilmington's Cherry Island landfill out of a Waste Management trash truck that had just completed a route of commercial trash bins in Newark, Del.

The initial reports of Wheeler's death - which Delaware authorities have ruled a homicide - sound like something out of a Tom Clancy mystery novel.

Those in his shocked circle of friends are baffled at who would want him killed and why.

"It's just puzzling and astonishing," said James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, who had been close friends with Wheeler for some 30 years, since they worked together on a book on how Vietnam affected their generation.

"Jack was always very involved in the question of the military-civic connection," Fallows said, "and how the health of the nation and its populace depended on the health of and respect for the military."

The two men had most recently been in touch over Wheeler's latest crusade - seeking to get ROTC programs restored at the Ivy League universities.

Since the end of his most recent stint as a special assistant to the secretary of the Air Force, Wheeler worked as a consultant for a nonprofit defense outfit, the Mitre Corp., that develops technologies for the Defense Department.

Wheeler lived with his wife, Katherine Klyce - described by the Wilmington News Journal as owner of a handwoven Cambodian silk company that did business in Delaware and in New York City - several miles away in Old New Castle, a historic community on the Delaware River below Wilmington.

Wheeler and his wife were reportedly well-known in the neighborhood for a feud with an adjacent property owner who was planning a new home - now under construction - that Wheeler claimed would block his view of a park. The couple filed a lawsuit against the project in 2009.

"It was kind of the thing in a small town," Robert Meadus, 85, a neighbor, said last night. "The town was kind of divided."

Police were called to the construction site last Tuesday, the paper reported, over a report of a smoke bomb.

"There are so many things investigators are looking into," said Newark police Lt. Mark Farrall, adding that police were aware of Wheeler's lawsuit. "It is something they will look into."

In his work, Wheeler had been concerned with much higher-profile forms of conflict, including the possibility that cyberwarfare could be used to thwart Iran's ambition to construct a nuclear weapon.

In recent months, reporters from the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune had interviewed Wheeler on speculation about cyber attacks against Tehran's nuclear program.

Born into a military family, Wheeler rose to the rank of colonel in the Army and served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. He went on to earn degrees from Yale Law School and Harvard Business School.

But his crowning achievement was his work to raise money and build a political consensus for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and its project on the National Mall in Washington, which for years was marked by controversy over everything from its unorthodox design to its dark color.

"He was a very dedicated public servant," said Jan Scruggs, president and founder of the veterans' memorial fund. "He was deeply religious and interested in theology."

"He was a very emotional person, which I mean in a good way," said Fallows, who said that Wheeler's intense passion for anything he did was what allowed him to accomplish so much. Now, those who knew Wheeler are struggling to consider who would have wanted him to disappear.

"It would never enter my mind for anyone to be killed or murdered in that fashion and disposed of," said Meadus, his neighbor. "I mean, that was horrible. This is a very well-educated sophisticated man."

Anyone with information regarding the case should call Detective Nicholas Sansone at 302-366-7110 ext. 135.