In 1966, about the time the Vietnam anti-war movements grumbling underbelly became no longer containable, staunch patriots trusted their President to never be wrong and kept supporting the war efforts. Anti-war/establishment songs such as Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changing”, rode high on Billboard’s chart. Not without their own musical representation, supporters of the war received the confirmation they were looking for when Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler released his number one hit song, and song of the year, “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”
Just so there is no question, Barry Sadler did at one time wear the Army’s prestigious Green Beret. The song was a tribute to his brothers-in-arms. In addition, he was a wounded Vietnam War Veteran. While on patrol through the jungles of South Vietnam in 1965, he stepped on a punji stick, which is a sharpened bamboo stick dipped in animal dung to create a quick and often fatal infection. Though he survived, he lost a leg in the process.
While recovering in a V.A. hospital Sadler wrote a couple of songs and entertained the other wounded veterans. A TV crew filming a documentary caught Sadler on tape singing “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” They aired it and RCA Records tossed a contract at him. The rest, as they say, is history. In the first five weeks, the record sold over two-million copies as it camped out in the number one position the entire time. Unable to write another song even comparable to his number one giant hit, Sadler exited the music biz, stage left.
Sadler never had things easy. Born on November 1st, 1940, his parents divorced when he was very young and his dad died of cancer shortly thereafter when he was only seven. Whenever she could, his mom managed bars and restaurants throughout the Southwest which kept them traveling regularly, more in search of work than ever finding it. During a brief stay in a logging camp at age 12, he developed an interest in music after hearing some old Western and Mexican songs and taught himself to play the guitar. A few of the loggers taught him to shoot and it turned out he also had a natural talent for nailing a target dead on.
He enlisted in the USAF in 1958. After his enlistment, he couldn’t find work so he and a friend traveled the West playing any dive bar that would let them through the front door. Having enough of cheap hotels, greasy burgers, stale smoke, and staying broke, Sadler visited the nearest Army recruiting station and put an end to all of that.
Sadler donated a great chunk of his song royalties to families of Vietnam casualties, keeping very little for himself. After a failed bar venture in Tucson, he tried for a country career in Nashville, but country, he was not. In the mid-70’s, he was accused of shooting a man who had threatened him a bar earlier that night. The shooting took place in a darkened parking lot and Sadler said he confused the man’s keys for a gun so it was self-defense. Nonetheless, he pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter.
Redirecting his efforts into a typewriter, Sadler became a successful author in the mid 70’s with a series of 22 books based on the fictitious character of “Casca”, the Eternal Mercenary.
Once again craving the excitement of the Green Berets, in 1983 Sadler uprooted to South America where he trained and helped supply Nicaraguan Contras. Soon after this, he settled in Guatemala City where he ran weapons for the Nicaraguan military.
In 1988, while returning by taxi to his mountain home outside of Guatemala City, Sadler was shot through the head. His son Thor believes drug runners were after his generous collection of guns, but to this day the reason remains a mystery. Sadler survived and was flown to Nashville by Bob Brown, editor of Fortune of Soldier Magazine, where he remained hospitalized until his death in 1989 from heart failure.