Many people believe that Memorial Day is a day for celebrating military veterans, but that’s not true. That’s what Veterans Day is for. On Memorial Day we honor the men and women of the Armed Forces who gave their lives for our country. Some of them died in battle, some died due to accidents or illness, and many suffered for years before succumbing to wounds both physical and psychological.
Young men of my generation spent our high school and college years knowing that we might be drafted to serve in Vietnam. Many of us, myself included, enlisted either out of a sense of duty to the country, or to have a choice in what training or assignments might be available. And many of those same young men of my generation were inspired by a young Army Special Forces Staff Sergeant who wrote and performed what many consider to be the ultimate Vietnam War song.
I can still remember watching the Ed Sullivan show and seeing a young Barry Sadler singing the Ballad of the Green Berets. I think I knew right then that someday I was going to have those silver wings he sang about on my chest. I was never a member of the Special Forces, but I did go through jump school and earned my wings.
But while millions of people know the song, not many of us know the story of the man who wrote and performed it. Barry Sadler had a rough time growing up. He came from a dysfunctional family and his father was out of the picture early on. While he was still in high school he was working part-time as a bouncer at a saloon his mother ran, and by all accounts he wasn’t afraid to use his fists whenever the need arose.
Born on November 1, 1940, in Carlsbad, New Mexico, he loved music from an early age and learned to play the guitar. He spent some time in the Air Force, working as a radar specialist, and upon his discharge he eked out a living playing music in saloons and honky-tonks. Sadler often said he didn’t care about the money, he was more interested in the many young women performing on stage attracted.
Realizing that his musical career was going nowhere, Sadler joined the Army and went through Special Forces training and other training to become a combat medic. Shipped to Vietnam in December, 1964, he was wounded in the leg in May, 1965 by a punji stick, a crude booby-trap made from sharpened sticks often covered with feces or some form of poison to promote infection. For many soldiers in vietnam, they were one of the most feared booby-traps. The wound became infected and Sadler was shipped back to the United States to recover.
It was during this period that he recorded his famous song. It came at an opportune time for the United States Army. The war seemed to be dragging on forever, body counts were climbing, and the people at home were becoming disillusioned and distrustful. The government needed something to show the military and the war in a positive light, and handsome young Staff Sergeant Sadler became the poster boy of the Vietnam War. The Army gave him time off to tour the country, performing on television shows and radio stations, at county fairs, VFW posts, and anyplace else he could draw a crowd.
As for Sadler himself, while he loved the public attention, he said many times that he would rather be back in the field serving his country. But that wasn’t going to happen. The military decided he would serve a more important role on stage playing his guitar then toting a machine gun through the jungle.
As with many people who quickly achieve fame, it wasn’t nearly what the young paratrooper thought it would be. And like many in his position, he blew through a lot of his money, spending it on fast cars, pretty women, and partying. Sadler left the Army to pursue his singing career and though he wrote a number of other songs, the Ballad of the Green Berets was his only number one hit.
By that time, married and a father, he settled in Tucson, Arizona for a while, where he was partners in a bar that failed, and spent a lot of time drinking, collecting guns, and telling wild stories that may or may not have been true. There were rumors, usually started by Sadler himself, that he was involved in gunrunning and training mercenaries.
Leaving Tucson, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, hoping to revitalize his singing career, but it never happened. It was there that he met a part-time singer and part-time cocktail waitress named Darlene Sharpe, and the two became lovers. Prior to becoming involved with Sadler, Ms. Sharpe had a relationship with a country music songwriter named Leon Emerson Bellamy. He and Sadler clashed several times, with threats being made back and forth from both men. The bad blood between them came to a head on the night of December 1, 1978, when Bellamy showed up at his former girlfriend’s apartment and threatened the couple. He then went to his van, and Sadler followed and shot him once in the head, killing him.
When police arrived he claimed self-defense, but investigation revealed that Bellamy had been unarmed. Court records state that Sadler put a handgun in Bellamy’s van to support his claim of self-defense. Six months later, Sadler was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to up to five years in prison. A judge later reduced to the sentence to just 30 days in jail. Sadler actually served 28 days. But his legal troubles were not over. He lost a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Bellamy’s stepson and was ordered to pay $10,000.
With his singing career over and needing to make money, Sadler then became an author, writing a series of 22 books about Casca, the Roman soldier who stabbed Jesus Christ with a spear while he was being crucified. According to Sadler’s narrative, before he died Christ condemned Casca to being an eternal mercenary. The books were no more than pulp fiction, but they were well-received. While the money he made off each book was not tremendous, it’s was enough to get by.
The killing of Bellamy cast a shadow on Sadler’s life in Nashville that he never was able to shake, and in 1984 he moved to Guatemala, where he rented a villa in Guatemala City and spent his time drinking, playing music, chasing the local women, and according to him, training mercenaries. He also frequently went out to small villages in the countryside to provide medical treatment for the impoverished locals.
It was there in Guatemala City that Sadler was shot in the head on September 7, 1988. The story of how he suffered the serious wound changed several times. At first it was said that he was playing with a gun in the backseat of a taxicab when it went off and struck him. Some think this is entirely possible, since Sadler loved to brandish guns, especially when he was drinking. But then the story changed and supposedly an unknown assailant approached the taxicab and shot him from the sidewalk. A third version of what happened is that Sadler saw a man abusing a woman outside of a nightclub and intervened and got shot for his trouble.
Transported back to the United States, he underwent surgery at the Nashville Veterans Administration hospital and spent several weeks in a coma. He came out of that but was left a quadriplegic with major brain damage. He spent time in hospitals and rehab homes while his mother and wife argued about what should be done with him. At one point his mother and two former Green Berets removed him from a different VA hospital in Ohio that specialized in patients with brain injuries and brought him back to Nashville.
In the end, it didn’t matter, because the man that was once known as America’s Green Beret died of cardiac arrest on November 5, 1989, just four days after his 49th birthday. He is buried in Nashville’s National Cemetery.
A good book about the life and death of Barry Sadler is Marc Leepson’s 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, available on Amazon.
Whether you see Barry Sadler as a hero, a lost soul, or something in between, I think he and every other veteran would agree with the sentiment on this sign on this Memorial Day.
Congratulations Carsten Wiemken, winner of our drawing for an audiobook of Badge Bunny, the third book in my John Lee Quarrels mystery series. We had 65 entries this time around. Stay tuned, a new contest starts soon.
Thought For The Day – Ladies, good men do exist. We’re just ugly.