Conduct Unbecoming

Bill Beachum, war hero and Disabled American Veterans honcho, had an out-of-control dream that may soon land him in jail. Question is, was he the only old soldier on a mission of greed?

William Baily Beachum Jr. flew rescue missions in Vietnam, each trip a gamble against the odds. His chopper was shot down five times. He looked into the staring eyes of men who'd been his friends and identified what was left of their bodies. He came home with screaming nightmares it would take his country years to understand.

He fooled 'em, though: He became one of the best damned national service officers the Disabled American Veterans ever had. Everybody liked Bill Beachum. He could pump up enough Mississippi charm to oil any situation. And he'd step out on thin, brittle limbs to get his men the benefits they'd earned.

He started working for DAV in St. Louis, and after a stint in Washington, D.C., he was sent back in 1993 to supervise the regional service office. Members of the local chapter -- DAV Number 1, one of the oldest and largest in the nation -- elected him their chief finance officer. He was a hero, after all, and a real personable guy; even had a college degree.

David Hollenbach
David Hollenbach

The power went down easy.

So did the Stoli, doubled, on the rocks.

By 1999, old fears and needs had caught up with him. He emptied his savings at the baccarat tables to prove he still had luck. He emptied DAV's coffers to transform a dingy old restaurant into a slick clubhouse for his men. He hired a sexy, hard-worn beauty as bartender and tried to convince himself she loved him.

He wanted what he never had in Vietnam: a way to win.

And he wanted what he craved growing up poor: easy money.

Bill Beachum was 56 years old, and want still burned his mind.

It changed him, led him down a reckless path that broke the old soldier's code of duty to comrades-in-arms and damaged the financial health and reputation of a charity he was charged to serve and protect.

It also brushed him hard against a group of fellow DAV officers applying another old soldier's tradition to the organization -- serve yourself first, make it work by making it work for you.

Beachum tried to follow that tradition and fouled everything up. Want got in the way. He sought relief in the cold ether of vodka. But when it mixed with his blood-thinning medication, the booze ignited.

That summer, he left hot, slurred messages on the bartender's answering machine, jabbing at her the way a drunk fraternity boy might:

"Get your ass over here -- I want a blowjob."

"I'm down at the Pinkeye, and I'm waitin' on your pink ass."

In time, he turned plaintive.

"After all I've tried to do for you," he said, months after he started paying her salary -- and more -- because she later claimed in a lawsuit the restaurant's manager had raped her. Beachum wanted to quiet Jane Doe for the DAV's sake, but he expected a little gratitude.

"I need somebody to talk to. Please."

When she wouldn't cooperate, he sobered, braced by her businesslike demands. In early autumn, he offered to meet her at a Bob Evans restaurant, "if that would be satisfactory," and said he was in a rush to get her latest check to her.

She requested a receipt. He started feeling a little frostburn.

"Hey, this is Bill -- you gonna pick up the phone?"

"What is so bad that I can't even come by your house? And the one time I did, I got arrested --" he'd torn the door off its hinges -- "and I'm gonna have to pay thousands of dollars."

That night, Doe answered and taped her response, preserving this conversation and the answering-machine messages for a future lawsuit:

"I thought you didn't have thousands of dollars anymore. I thought your accounts were frozen."

"They are, but I'm gonna have to pay thousands and thousands of dollars to get outta this shit. Fuck you -- I won't pay you any fucking money. I'll go to jail and spend the rest of my life there, because I've been miserable anyway."

Two years later -- after a massive investigation that twisted in other directions as well -- Beachum was indicted on 23 counts of money laundering, theft and forgery. Not only had he spent DAV money on Doe -- who sued anyway -- he'd allegedly siphoned money from the chapter to pay his gambling debts and buy himself a BMW.

While he was playing, the DAV Transportation Network's 71-year-old coordinator was scrambling for more volunteers to drive 1,600 paralyzed or infirm vets to their doctors' appointments. People were working their twentieth years at low-paying DAV thrift stores because they wanted to make a difference. Thousands of veterans were giving hard-earned money "to advance the interests and work for the betterment of all wounded, injured and disabled veterans."

While they were answering the call of duty, Beachum was going AWOL.

His wife was so shaken by his conduct that it took her weeks to agree to bail him out of jail. In December, she sued for divorce. Beachum is now in Mississippi, waiting for his July 1 trial.

To outsiders, it was a hero's tragic fall.

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