Small Wars Journal

Book Interview - Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler

Book Interview - Ballad of the Green Beret: The Life and Wars of Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler by Sean Moores, Stars & Stripes

In 1966, Army Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, an active-duty Green Beret medic, became a national sensation with his song “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” The Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones had chart-topping hits that year, but it was Sadler’s salute to the Special Forces that finished the year at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Singles chart, based on sales and airplay.

Sadler’s rise from a tour in Vietnam to the top of the pops might have been interesting enough to fill a book. His fall from that short-lived perch makes the story all the more compelling. Historian and Vietnam veteran Marc Leepson captures it all in “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.”

“In a lot of ways his life is a tragic story,” said Leepson, Senior Writer, Books Editor and columnist for The VVA Veteran, the magazine published by Vietnam Veterans of America. “He was on top of the world, or at least the United States, in 1966. Then everything unraveled.”

Sadler’s music career stalled after one marginally successful follow-up. Before long, hundreds of thousands in royalty dollars were gone to booze and bad business sense. Less than 15 years after his song hit No. 1, Sadler was charged with murder in Nashville. As that legal struggle began, so did Sadler’s successful second act as pulp-fiction novelist. After years of drinking and womanizing, he spent his final years living apart from his family in Central America, where the carousing continued. In September 1988, he was shot in the head in a taxicab in Guatemala City. Who shot him remains unclear. Sadler died the following year, not yet 50 years old.

Leepson, 71, recently spoke by telephone with Stars and Stripes about his new book, Sadler’s famous song and the soldier’s rocky road after the fame faded.

Continue on for the interview

H/T Dave Maxwell

Comments

Outlaw 09

Mon, 05/01/2017 - 3:19am

In reply to by Bill M.

When I came into SF in 1966 many of us knew both Sadler and his song....in many ways it was what got us dates with female students at their GWU dorms in DC when we showed up wearing the Green Beret...and no one wanted to admit it but there was a certain pride when we heard the song being played on the local radio at Ft. Bragg....

Remember something about the song and Sadler...it went to the heart of how SF recruited in those days...they asked you to join not the other way around as it is today...I was one of three selected by SF out of 1900 basic trainees at Polk then...and when they asked I immediately said yes..

Secondly, remember that many in SF from that period who suffered PTSD and related issues especially alcohol and drugs from the intensity of a war that even today with this SF they have not truly experienced...AND remember the KIA/WIA rates for the 5th were at levels not seen since then for SF especially for a 3K man unit....nor the fact that the 5th had the highest and still does historically the highest level for valor awards of any SF unit.....

Example...we had one border camp in III Corp nick named "Ka-boom" which would open a 24 hour Contact Report at mid nigh tand leave it open as they would get an average of 800-1000 rounds of artillery...mortar and GRAD rockets fired at the camp every single day for weeks on end from the NVA out of Cambodia and yet they could not return fire..and all they had were helmets and no body armor as there is today....ran trenches and lived in bunkers to survive it...

AND yet there was not a single SF/Army program to catch those that were suffering from PTSD, alcohol and drugs other than to throw them out of SF and the Army...yet they had served with honor and respect and had fought hard.

I was replaced on my ODA when I left for MAVC SOG by a SSG who I had met a couple of times in Saigon CLD and then as I was out processing in Nha Trang I was informed that my former ODA had been hit the previous night ..10 GRAD rockets for 10 SF fighting positions killing six wounding three and the remaining person was the SSG who had replaced me...was not hit and had to organize the ground fighting...evac the wounded and killed and continued to led the fight...they had been pushing off countless NVA recon teams who were intensively trying to recon the camp prior to the attack and they knew the attack was coming...

Later I met him again when he arrived in Bad Toelz Germany with a warm big hello...one very early Sunday morning his wife stood in front of my apartment door which was in the same building as their apartment was with a loaded 9mm pistol and she was crying that her husband was drunk and wanted to kill himself....and she had come to me as I was the only person who knew what he had been through and knew him personally. When I went there he was in fact truly drunk...sitting on the floor with headphones on and listening to the Doors..."Riders of the Night" at full volume....and crying.........

It was a true PTSD phase with a heavy amount of survivors guilt...but both SF and the Army abandoned him as they had nothing in place to assist him...his drinking became worse and then he failed a drug test and was bounced out of SF and the Army with a dishonorable discharge....after having served with honor and respect.

Second example, living under me was a young married SSG VN vet...a medic who had been seriously wounded in a major battle that I had heard about before leaving VN and who was awarded the MOH at Bad Toelz for his actions as a medic in that fight...who partied hard with other single SF soldiers...partied hard on MJ/hash...and who never got caught on pop drug tests....

One day he walked into the unit declared he was on drugs and got bounced out and went back to California and killed himself while high riding his motorcycle....he had gotten hooked on pain killers during his recovery period for the injury pain and both the Army and SF had nothing to help him with.....for turning himself in as a drug user he got a "General Discharge".

Third example, while serving in Det A Berlin Bde we had a SF medic who can just come back from VN and was extremely quiet a solid indicator of PTSD as we know it today...well in typical Army fashion they had told him he would not be up for going back to VN for at least three years thus he took Berlin in a reenlistment deal.....within six months he had gotten again orders for VN due to a shortage of medics...

Both he and the unit tried hard to get the Army to defer him as he had just come back..Army response was it is not written in the reenlistment papers you signed...thus you are going back as there is a SF shortage of medics.

On a Monday morning formation he was not there and the unit received notification via the US Embassy in Stockholm that he had arrived in Sweden asking for political asylum which had been granted and he was available for debriefing...

The only SF combat vet that I know of to have ever defected to another country..he married, had three children, became a Professor and taught for years and still is in Sweden as he refused to accept the "amnesty" years later...and he served with honor and respect...

Remember VN vets and that included SF vets had to fight for years with VA just to get PTSD accepted as a disability paving the way for future military vets to claim PTSD....let's not even go in Agent Orange/White/Blue recognition...

So in some aspects I do fully understand why Sadler went the way he did and it had nothing to do with a failed singing career.....

An interesting article that points to a disturbing trend when the military seeks to influence public opinion by throwing a Soldier or Marine into the media circus. Most don't join the military for this reason, it runs contrary to their values, and their personal lives are often destroyed by this exposure. Barry said it was the worse thing that happened to him. If the movie was accurate, the Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima had a similar experience, as did the Marine who earned the MOH in Afghanistan. We have enough history with this now to prepare our people for the circus and its after effects, but I don't know if we are.