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Almost every member of the Vietnam War generation—and anyone who’s ever served in the Special Forces—knows the name Barry Sadler: The active duty Green Beret Staff Sergeant just back from fighting in Vietnam who wrote and recorded “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” the No. 1 song of the Vietnam War year of 1966—when the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, the Mamas and Papas, and Simon & Garfunkel (among others) were riding high.
Sadler became a media sensation in February when his old-fashioned, pro-military song became the best-selling record in the country. The single would go on to sell some nine million copies; the song’s album sold more than two million. The records earned Sadler fame—and about a half million dollars in royalties in 1966 alone.
A Tragic Ending
Unhappily, that was the highpoint of his life. The nationwide fame was fleeting and the Barry Sadler story has a tragic ending.
Sadler survived a rocky childhood and adolescence, dropping out of high school to join the Air Force in 1962, serving for four years, and then joining the Army, volunteering for Airborne and Special Forces. He chose to be a medic, and served with a SF A Team in the Central Highlands from early 1965 till late May when he was medevaced after a punji stick wound became infected.
He was stationed at Fort Bragg when the song hit. The Army promptly took Sadler off regular duties and sent him around the country as a human recruiting poster. He looked the part—a young, handsome Green Beret war veteran with the biggest song in the country. But Sadler, a man of action, hated being paraded out in front of fickle crowds. So he got out of the Army as soon as his term of his enlistment ended, in May of 1967. He moved to Tucson with his wife and two young sons. The plan: to make a living as a musician and an actor.
But Barry Sadler never had another hit song. His acting career went nowhere. He opened a bar that leaked money. He tried running a battery store. That venture fizzled. Within five years he had spent all the royalty money and was broke. The family moved to Nashville in 1973 where Sadler tried to jump start his musical career. He couldn’t.
The Second Act
Barry Sadler’s second act as the author of a slew of pulp fiction novels began in 1978. The books—including twenty-two in the Casca: The Eternal Mercenary series—sold well, but Sadler was living on the edge. He shot and killed a washed-up country music singer/songwriter named Lee Bellamy in Nashville that year. Sadler claimed it was self-defense, was arrested for second-degree murder, and lawyered up. In a plea deal, got off with a 30-day sentence in the county workhouse.
But his drinking and running around continued. In January 1984, Barry Sadler went into a kind of exile, moving to Guatemala and settling into a small ranch outside Guatemala City. Rumors flew that he was running a mercenary operation, training anti-communist Nicaraguan guerrilla fighters (the Contras), and conducting international arms deals. But he was mainly churning out books, and drinking and carousing in his four-bedroom country villa and in the bars of Guatemala City.
On September 7, 1988, Barry Sadler took a bullet to the head in a taxi cab in Guatemala City after a day and night of drinking. Details of the shooting are murky. The authorities said he shot himself in a drunken accident. Others claimed it was a robbery or an attempted assassination by communist guerrillas or personal enemies.
He was brought back to the United States, and spent the next sixteen months as a brain-damaged paraplegic in three VA hospitals. Barry Sadler died on November 5, 1989, four days after his 49th birthday.
A Double-Edged Sword
The startling but short-lived success Barry Sadler had in 1966 turned out to be a very sharp double-edged sword. After overcoming a difficult childhood, serving honorably in the Air Force and Army he was on the road to an honorable, if under-the-radar, military career. But “The Ballad of the Green Berets” uprooted him from the military life that he had envisioned.
Soon he was broke, unhappy, and stumbling along life’s path. He ran with a rough crowd. He also read voraciously and wrote 29 pulp fiction books. His dry wit charmed many a man—and many women. “Nobody could tell a joke like Barry did, often in dialect,” a friend from the 1980s said. “He was the best story teller I ever knew, and one of the funniest.”
Barry’s marriage, though, was dysfunctional at best. He killed Lee Bellamy and all but got away with it. He fled the country to live a wild life in Central America. He wound up with a bullet in his head in the middle of the night and died after more than a year confined to hospital beds barely able to speak and unable to feed himself.
The man who in 1966 was the Audie Murphy of the Vietnam War—a handsome, famous, charismatic war hero made into a show biz celebrity—had been undone being unable to handle the fame that his creation unleashed.
The Song of the Century
“The Ballad of the Green Berets” is very much alive today, more than fifty years after its sensational birth. “It became the song of the century as far as Special Forces is concerned,” said Steve Bruno, who went through Green Beret medic training with Barry.
“The Ballad” is the theme song for the U.S. Army Special Forces, is played for SF trainees at Fort Bragg, and is heard at every Special Forces reunion and at more than one Green Beret’s funeral. “The “Ballad” also was the only notable and popular pro-military song to come out of the entire Vietnam War. And Barry Sadler became arguably the most famous American who served in that controversial war.
And yet “The Ballad of the Green Berets” all but destroyed the man who created it.
“In many ways the success of that song was the worst thing that ever happened to him,” said Jim Morris, a writer and a former Green Beret who edited Barry’s last two books. “Without that, I have the feeling that he would have stayed in the Army. He would have been happier.”
Sadler “looked at that song as a curse in a lot of ways,” a Nashville buddy said. “He said all he ever wanted to do was be a soldier.”
“I wish,” Sadler told the journalist Robert M. Powers in 1971, “that I’d never, ever written that stupid song.”
Journalist and historian Marc Leepson served as a U.S. Army draftee in the Vietnam War. He is Senior Writer and Arts Editor for The VVA Veteran, the magazine published by Vietnam Veterans of America. This article is adapted from his new book, Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. His website is www.marcleepson.com