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The Ballad of the Green Beret

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Recently I was listening to a program about Vietnam-era music on Music 101, a very interesting feature of a very interesting new public radio station in the Denver area. Thus I came to hear SSGT Barry Sadler sing The Ballad of the Green Berets, the #1 hit of the year 1966, per the American Billboard pop charts. Here are the lyrics:

Fighting soldiers from the sky
Fearless men who jump and die
Men who mean just what they say
The brave men of the Green Beret

Silver wings upon their chest
One hundred men will test today
But only three win the Green Beret

Trained to live off nature’s land
Trained in combat, hand-to-hand
Men who fight by night and day
Courage peak from the Green Berets

Silver wings upon their chest
These are men, America’s best
One hundred men will test today
But only three win the Green Beret

Back at home a young wife waits
Her Green Beret has met his fate
He has died for those oppressed
Leaving her his last request

Put silver wings on my son’s chest
Make him one of America’s best
He’ll be a man they’ll test one day
Have him win the Green Beret.

That this unabashed paean to the American war effort in Southeast Asia was such a huge hit is a good reminder that the Vietnam war itself was very popular with the American public at the time: indeed, in August of 1965 — Sadler recorded the song in December — war supporters outnumbered opponents by nearly three to one.

I’m not quite old enough to remember the song when it was dominating the airwaves in March and April of 1966, but I heard it a couple or three times in the decades since, and this most recent encounter caused me to wonder what subsequently became of SSGT Barry Sadler.

Sadler was born in Novemnber 1940. His parents divorced when he was five, and his father died two years later at the age of 36, leaving Barry in the sole custody of his mother, who moved around the American west working a series of fringe jobs. They were living in Leadville, CO, in the mid-1950s — Leadville is the highest inhabited town of any size in the USA, and must have been an exceptionally isolated place at the time — when Sadler dropped out of the 10th grade, thus ending his formal education.

For the next couple of years he seems to have been more or less what in those days was called a juvenile delinquent, before he joined the Air Force at the age of 17. He spent some time in Japan as a radar tech, and then enlisted in the Army Airborne and Special Forces in 1962, shortly after his discharge from the Air Force. In later years the story he gave out was that he enlisted in the Army rather than re-upping with the USAF because the Air Force recruiter happened to be out of the office that day, so Sadler just went one door down to the Army recruiter. A lot of stories Sadler told after he got famous should be taken, like the margaritas which he drank like lemonade, with many grains of salt. (Much of Sadler’s life story until he joined the Green Berets bears an eerie resemblance to that of his almost exact contemporary, Lee Harvey Oswald, before Oswald defected to the Soviet Union)

Sadler opted to become a medic in the Special Forces, and spent five months in Vietnam before he was seriously wounded by a Punji stick while on patrol in May of 1965. He was then sent back to the States for treatment and recovery. During his convalescence, he began to try to write songs about his military experience. Sadler eventually wrote The Ballad of the Green Berets with some assistance from Robin Moore, the author of the novel The Green Berets, which formed the basis for the 1968 movie of the same name, starring John Wayne, a shamelessly warmongering script, and a sunset into the eastern Pacific.

The song became such a massive hit that the Army decided to send him around the country on publicity tours, which he hated. The brass were certainly not going to put their handsome and telegenic pop star in harm’s way again, and Sadler left the service in 1967. At that point the publishing industry thought it would be a good idea to offer the 25-year-old’s dictated life story, I’m A Lucky One, to the public. (The ruthlessness with which both the military and the entertainment industry exploited Sadler’s sudden popularity testifies to the extent to which the Vietnam war was, among many other things, a propagandistic money-making venture).

Sadler made a lot of money from his hit song and the album it was on. How much precisely is hard to nail down, but $500,000 seems like a reasonable estimate. (This would be nearly four million dollars in current money).

Sadler had gotten married in 1963 at the age of 22, and after leaving the military, he moved with his wife and two children to Tucson. He had a few bit parts in TV shows and one movie, and then quickly disappeared from the mainstream media consciousness.

By all rights that’s when this mildly interesting bit of social history should have exhausted its narrative potential, with Sadler becoming a salesman for the military division of Lockheed and settling down in Newport Beach or something. Instead, we are just getting started. Sadler opened up a bar in Tuscon, but proceeded to drink up all of his profit margin. (This is only a mild exaggeration. Everyone who knew him testifies to how prodigious Sadler’s feats of alcohol consumption were).

The then moved to Hollywood and started a movie production company with much of the remaining proceeds of the Ballad. This went about as well as you might expect, although he did meet a lot of interesting film industry people in area bars, drinking all of them under the table. He had a scheme to start a chain of battery stores that never got off the ground. He moved to Nashville in 1973 with the ambition of becoming — wait for it — a country and western singer-songwriter. This also went nowhere. By now — around 1976 — he was out of money, drunk much of the time, and constantly getting into love or lust affairs with various single and married women.

At this point it somehow occurred to Sadler that he should become a historical novelist. Armed with a 10th-grade education, a library card, and a bottomless bottle of tequila, he started cranking out a series of what have been called male bodice-ripper historical romances. The most successful of these was what eventually became a 22-book series featuring a character named Casca Rufio Longinus. The protagonist was (and is: the series was revivified by other authors after Sadler’s death, and is now approaching 50 volumes) a combination of Longinus, the Roman soldier who qua medieval legend pierced Christ’s side with a lance, and the Wandering Jew, who, who according to a related tradition taunted Jesus en route to the Crucifixion, and was cursed to wander the earth as a result.

Casca is thus a soldier who was cursed to remain a soldier until the Second Coming. Apparently he is doomed to be killed in many nasty ways, only to be brought back to life, so that he can suffer and inflict ever-more martial carnage. Now I have to say this is just a fantastic — in every sense — premise for a pulp fiction series, and I’m tempted to track down one of these texts, which over the years have developed quite a fan club. (With any luck at least one LGM commenter is a member).

The Casca series doesn’t represent all of Sadler’s literary output by any means. I’ve tracked down 31 (!) novels written by him over the dozen years or so between his rebirth as a novelist and his untimely death. Apparently Sadler’s method was to write books in five-week dusk to dawn spurts of furious composition, that involved little if any re-writing or editing, and stupendous amounts of drinking.

Speaking of histories of violence, Sadler started publishing the Casca series immediately after he shot a man to death. It was, as you can probably imagine by now, a complicated situation: At the time of the shooting in December 1978 Sadler was involved with Darlene Sharpe, a woman who was the former girlfriend of country singer and songwriter Lee Emerson Bellamy (Bellamy was an ex-con who at one time managed the careers of both George Jones and Marty Robbins. I apologize to Erik for not saving this tale for his peripatetic cemetery visits).

Bellamy had apparently been harassing both Sharpe and Sadler, and had already had one violent confrontation with the two of them in a Nashville parking lot, during which, per court records, he threatened their lives.

One night Bellamy made several harassing phone calls, including one to the restaurant where Sadler and Sharpe were having dinner with friends. Sadler called the police, who did nothing. The couple then went to Darlene’s apartment, where soon Bellamy appeared. Sadler slipped out a side door; Bellamy saw him and retreated to his van. In court, Sadler testified that he saw a flash of metal, which he took to be a gun. He then shot Bellamy right between the eyes. (From forty feet away, with only a single streetlight for illumination, as he proudly related several years later to a bemused journalist). This is already not the greatest case I’ve ever heard of for a successful self-defense claim, but it gets a lot worse, as, according to court records, Sadler then planted a gun in Bellamy’s van.

Sadler was charged with second-degree murder, but eventually pled out to voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced initially to four to five years in prison. Sadler had hired the top criminal lawyer in Nashville, who somehow subsequently managed to get the sentencing judge to reduce his client’s sentence to 30 days (!) in the country workhouse, of which he ended up serving 28. (The district attorney hadn’t wanted to bring the case to trial, because he thought that, in 1979, a Nashville jury would be reluctant to convict a war hero who had brought The Ballad of the Green Berets to America).

The final twist in this tangled tale is appropriately gothic. After the Bellamy affair, Sadler’s wife Lavona had had enough. She told her husband to leave and not come back until he got himself straightened out. Sadler traveled to Mexico and other central American locales, before eventually settling down, sort of, in a ranch near Guatemala City, which he rented for $300 per month. This price included a staff of three. At the time, Sadler was earning about $100,000 per year ($220,000 in current dollars), 90% of which came from his Casca novels. with the remainder made up of ongoing royalties from his long-ago music stardom. He dubbed the place Rancho Borracho.

Sadler kept cranking out Casca novels at a pace of two or three a year. He also intermittently provided free medical care to villages that I suspect reminded him of Vietnam, while sending regular checks back to Lavona and their three children in Nashville.

Barry Sadler was shot in the head in a taxicab in September 1988, in Guatemala City. He never recovered and died the next year, five days after his 49th birthday. The local authorities concluded he accidentally shot himself while drunk. This is needless to say a plausible theory, as is the belief of his family and friends, that he was murdered by a never-identified enemy of some sort (At the time he was shot, Sadler was, as was his inveterate custom, keeping company with a woman other than his wife).

In his latter days Sadler often lamented the success of The Ballad of the Green Berets. He told friends and acquaintances that, if not for that song, he would have just stayed in the Army — which he said he loved — for 20 years, and then retired with a pension that would have allowed him to travel the country in an RV, hunting, fishing, and not brooding on the fate of the eternal soldier.

A biography of Sadler has just been published. Written by Marc Leepson, it has the appropriately pulpy title Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler from the Vietnam War and Pop Stardom to Murder and an Unsolved, Violent Death.

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