Barry Sadler, the Vietnam veteran who wrote and recorded “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” died in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, last November 5. He was 49 years old. Sadler had been shot in the forehead in Guatemala City in September 1988, an incident that had left him brain damaged and partially paralyzed. The cause of death was not given, and an autopsy had been scheduled as of the time of this writing.

The circumstances of Sadler’s shooting have given rise to speculation and rumor. Some say it was the result of a robbery; a few say he accidentally shot himself while drunk; and others say it was tied to Sadler’s involvement with gunrunning and the training of Nicaraguan rebels. What is confirmed by his friends, however, is that Sadler was a free-spirit whose actions and pursuits were as varied and unpredictable as they often were adventurous, violent, and dangerous.

Sadler was a combat medic with the United States Special Forces in Vietnam. He saw extensive combat throughout 1964 and 1965 and was wounded and returned stateside in 1966, the year he recorded his famous ballad. With America having “turned the corner” in Vietnam, and with the “light at the end of the tunnel” clearly in sight, Sadler’s patriotic song rose to No. I and stayed there for five weeks. He was christened the poet laureate of the Vietnam War, and his hit single and album of army ballads sold more than nine million copies. He went to Hollywood in the late 1960’s and acted in both movies and television, appearing in such series as Death Valley Days and High Chaparral, and went to Nashville in the 1970’s to pursue a career in the music business, a world he later described as a “worse jungle than what I was in in Vietnam.”

Sadler moved to Guatemala in the mid 1980’s. Officially he was technical adviser to the Guatemalan Army, but his other pursuits were widely known. He was a fervent supporter of the Contra cause, and he relished training the Contras in combat techniques. He was also a lifelong mercenary who had doled himself out to eight or ten warring armies throughout the world; an international arms dealer who sold everything from Gatling guns to helicopters, which brought him big money as well as threats on his life; a hero and revered medic in Guatemalan villages who spent tens of thousands of dollars a year on medical supplies for the peasants, who in turn called him affectionately their “Papa Gringo”; and a notorious drinker and womanizer who loved to mix alcohol with the handling of loaded guns, who dubbed his Guatemalan house the Rancho Borracho (the ranch of drunkards), and who was incapable of divorcing himself from the barroom brawl. (He shot a man in the head during a bar fight in Nashville in 1978, for which he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and drew a suspended sentence.)

Perhaps what is most astonishing about Sadler was his success as a writer. He was the author of more than 30 books, including the volumes that make up his semiautobiographical CASCA: The Eternal Mercenary series, which have sold more than two million copies. Sadler is known as the Louis L’Amour of the action adventure, and his books are among the best-sellers of the genre. Two additional books by Sadler, including the 22nd CASCA book, are scheduled to be released this’ spring. He was also a longtime contributor to Soldier of Fortune, and its publisher, Robert Brown, along with Sadler’s friend Duke Faglier and literary agent Bob Robison, funded and arranged for the medics, brain surgeon, personnel, and planes that went to Sadler’s aid in Guatemala in 1988.

Barry Sadler was the most famous and fabled soldier of the Vietnam War, and he died—fittingly enough—at the Alvin C. York Medical Center in Murfreesboro. (TP)