Remembering Green Beret Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler
by Temerity Forthright
Memorial Day is a time to remember our military heroes. One of those who is known to all of us from the Vietnam Era is Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.
Most people just know him as the guy who sang “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” But few really know anything about him, for therein lies the stunning success and terrible tragedy of his life.
Barry Sadler was born in New Mexico on November 1, 1940. His father died from cancer when Barry was in high school. His mother moved her family around a lot to find work. Barry dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and, as was common in the late 50s, he hitch-hiked around the country.
In 1958, when Barry was 17, he enlisted in the Air Force. He served as a radar technician in Japan, completed his GED, and was discharged in 1962. Restless after his band gig didn’t pan out, Barry enlisted in the Army, completed Airborne Training, and then volunteered for Special Forces. He was trained as a combat medic and wore the Green Beret.
Sadler was sent to Vietnam in 1964, leaving his wife and infant son behind in Fort Bragg. He and his medic team performed minor surgeries, gave inoculations, and treated injuries such as fragment wounds, burns, infections, and diseases.
A self-taught guitarist, Barry always had his guitar with him. He practiced, entertained his comrades, and wrote songs. His musical talents caught the ear of top brass, and Sadler was ordered to write a song for a general’s retirement party. He had already written “The Ballad,” so he performed it in Saigon in March 1965.
In May while on patrol, Barry Sadler was severely wounded in the leg by a punji stick, a vicious bobby trap made of sharp bamboo sticks. His leg became so infected it appeared it might have to be amputated. But after a lengthy hospitalization and treatments, Sadler made a full recovery.
Sadler signed a recording contract with RCA in December 1965 while he was still in the Army. “The Ballad of the Green Berets” was released in January and quickly became a #1 hit song. Sadler performed his song on the Ed Sullivan Show. The song and album sold about 9 million copies, and the title song stayed at #1 on the charts for 5 weeks.
Listen to Green Beret Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler sing the song that has been ranked the #21 song from the 1960s:
Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler was honorably discharged in 1967. He was awarded, among other honors, the Purple Heart Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Combat Infantry Badge, and Parachutist Badge.
Sadler recorded a few more songs, but none reached the iconic status of “The Ballad.” He turned to writing with some success, including his autobiography, “I’m A Lucky One.”
To many, that is the end of the story.
Fast forward about 10 years.
In December 1978, after a lengthy dispute with Lee Emerson Bellamy, Sadler shot and killed Bellamy in what he described as self-defense. Sadler pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, but his 4-5 year sentence was reduced to 30 days in the county workhouse. He was also ordered to pay $10,000 in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Bellamy’s family.
Fast forward another 10 years.
On September 7, 1988, former Green Beret Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, who moved to Guatemala in the mid-80s, was shot in the head while in a cab in Guatemala City. He was flown back to the U.S. and was operated on at the VA Hospital in Nashville. Sadler emerged from a coma after 6 weeks as a quadriplegic with severe brain damage.
There was a court battle between his wife and mother over his care, and the court finally ruled that Sadler would be put in the care of an independent guardian. Sadler was moved to the VA Hospital in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in February of 1989, but he never recovered from his injury.
Green Beret Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler died of cardiac arrest on November 5, 1989. He was just 49 years old.