In 1966 the protesting chant of the Vietnam antiwar movement, “Hell, No, We Won’t Go,” was already reverberating across America, but Sgt. Barry Sadler was singing an entirely different tune, specifically The Ballad of the Green Berets:
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.
TIME magazine deemed the jut-jawed Special Forces sergeant “musically illiterate,” but America saluted the patriotic song—and the soldier who wrote it. The album spent 32 weeks on the charts, five of them at No. 1, and the ballad lyrics were translated into 27 languages. RCA sold more than two million records in the first three months, while Sadler’s employer, the U.S. Army, had to assign a colonel to serve as his press agent. In one year the song Sadler claimed he “co-wrote with a bottle of tequila” earned him about $500,000.
Twenty years later the royalty checks from the ballad—$4,000 to $10,000 annually—continue to roll in, and the former medic is still making money by glamorizing the world of the soldier. In the past seven years Sadler has written 23 pulp novels about military derring-doers. “I write for money,” says Sadler, 45, now a contributing editor to Soldier of Fortune magazine. “If you find any social relevance in my books, for God’s sake, tell me.”
So far, few have. Many of Sadler’s books deal with the mythical Casca (The Eternal Mercenary), a Roman spear carrier condemned by Christ to soldier for pay until the Second Coming. Hence, his oeuvre features Casca: the Barbarian, Casca: the Conquistador, Casca: Panzer Soldier—you get the idea. Another Sadler saga, Phu Nham, deifies an American sniper who roams the jungles “with hate in his heart and blood on his hands.” According to Sadler’s agent, the book makes “Rambo look like a stroll through Disneyland,” and has been optioned as a film to be made this fall. The author has signed up as technical adviser.
For the past three years Sadler has lived in Latin America, roaming from Mexico to Honduras and now to Guatemala. Twenty miles north of Guatemala City, he rents a four-bedroom villa he calls Rancho Borracho (borracho is Spanish for “drunk”), complete with staff of three—all for $300 a month. Sadler carries an Iver Johnson revolver to protect against burglars. His waistline has thickened but the three-time, all-service karate champion remains quick enough to star in his own self-defense video.
Sadler keeps the nocturnal hours of a Vietnam jungle fighter—writing from dusk until dawn. Each novel requires an intensive, five-week tour of duty, but he does so little rewriting that two characters occasionally end up with the same name. On the other hand, Sadler researches battles and weaponry meticulously.
Like a character out of one of his books, Sadler left the U.S. partly because of an ugly triangle: a gun, a girl and a corpse. In 1978 Sadler shot and killed his girlfriend’s former beau in Nashville. The pride of the Special Forces had taken up with one Darlene Sharp. Her ex, a convict-turned-songwriter, showed up at Sharp’s door while Barry was there. Sadler hopped out the back but says he mistook the gleam of Emerson’s car keys for a gun and fired. Sadler shot the man right between the eyes, a fact he recalls with pride: “Forty feet at night by a single light in a parking lot,” he says.
Convicted of voluntary manslaughter, Sadler served just 21 days in the Nashville Metro Workhouse after a sympathetic appeals judge reduced his original four-to-five-year sentence. His sentence back home was stiffer. The past and present Mrs. Sadler did not relish the newspaper coverage of Barry’s extracurricular R and R. Married for 23 years, Barry supports Lavona and their daughter, Brooke, 10, on his estimated $100,000 annual earnings. (They live in the U.S., though Sadler will not say where.) Recalling the line, “Put silver wings on my son’s chest,” Sadler’s son Thor, 21, attended Army Airborne school, while Baron, 20, works for a Florida construction crew.
According to Sadler, Lavona virtually put him on the airplane south. “She told me,” he says, “to ‘run off for as long as it takes. Go get the crap out of your system. Then come home, but don’t come home until you’re ready to stay.’ ” That time, Sadler says, is not here, but it’s coming.
Staying put just doesn’t seem to be in Sadler’s blood. The son of professional gamblers, Sadler was born in New Mexico and bounced around the Southwest while growing up. At 15, he dropped out of high school and two years later joined the Air Force. At 21, he left the service but six months of picking fruit as a civilian made reenlistment look good. On the afternoon he went to sign up, the Air Force recruiter was away from his desk so the Army—and eventually the Green Berets—got Sadler. Sadler worked in the Vietnam uplands until he stepped on a punji stick (a sharp bamboo stake coated with human waste). Fifteen stitches and an infected leg earned Sadler a Purple Heart.
Sadler, who had often written songs for his Army buddies, finished his famous ballad while recuperating in the hospital. Musically untrained, he showed some songs to a friend who sent him to RCA Victor. His success as the singing sergeant made it impossible for him to return to action as a medic; the brass felt it would be bad PR if Sadler were killed. Bored with doing publicity, Sadler left the service with an honorable discharge in 1967.
Civilian duty proved hazardous. Two follow-up albums to Green Berets flopped. He bought and sold a saloon (“I was always a better customer than an owner,” he jokes) and took a run at Hollywood. Eventually he attempted to reactivate his musical career—which led to Nashville—and the slammer.
These days Sadler leaves his guitar-picking to Saturday nights in Guatemala City. He has, however, returned to another early love. Several times a month he drives his battered Honda Civic into isolated Indian villages. Armed with drugs and his Special Forces medical handbook, the man who is called “Papa Gringo” by the natives treats everything from TB to parasites. “It’s only what I did in Vietnam,” says Sadler, “meatball medicine.”
The compassionate do-gooder, the killer of ex-boyfriends, the hard-drinking adventurer, Sadler is a tough man to pin down. “Just because you’re a homicidal maniac,” he says, “doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of humor. I’m just a victim of my own mythology.”