'Ballad Of The Green Berets' Singer Barry Sadler's Rise And Tragic Fall

By | May 29, 2019

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Left: Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler in 1966. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images). Right: Sadler's mug shot from 1979. Courtesy Nashville Metropolitan Police Department.

It's perhaps the most unlikely #1 pop hit of all time: "Ballad Of The Green Berets" by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966. The Vietnam War still had public support, although resistance to it from the younger generation was beginning to gain momentum over reports of the U.S. bombing activities in North Vietnam. The lyrics of Sgt. Barry Sadler's "Ballad Of The Green Berets" are an unapologetic salute to troops fighting in a war that would turn out to be very unpopular (although the word "Vietnam" does not appear in the song):

Silver Wings upon their chest
These are men, America's best
100 men will test today
But only 3 win the Green Beret

Sadly, Sgt. Barry Sadler's life would take some bad turns after the phenomenon of "Ballad Of The Green Berets." Like many artists who see a rapid success, he was not able to sustain it. His story ends in disillusionment and violence.

But the achievement of the song cannot be denied -- it bumped Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" from the #1 spot and held off the Rolling Stones' "19th Nervous Breakdown," the Beatles' "Nowhere Man," and Simon & Garfunkel's "Homeward Bound." In 1966, American culture was about to undergo the major change we often think of when we talk about "the '60s." The Summer Of Love would occur in 1967, and Woodstock was still three years off. 

But in 1966 the country was less divided than it would become. "One of the marketing people said that if [the song] had come out six months later, it wouldn’t have sold and it wouldn’t have become a sensation," said Marc Leepsen, author of a 2017 biography of Sadler.

 Before Singing About Green Berets, Sadler Served In Vietnam

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After dropping out of high school in the 10th grade, Sadler joined the U.S. Air Force in June 1958. He served for four years, and during that time he earned his GED and spent a year in Japan before he was honorably discharged in 1962. He re-upped his service later that year and after completing airborne training he served as a medic in the Special Forces.

From 1964 to 1965 Sadler served as a medic in Vietnam where he worked with the 5th Special Forces Group’s Detachment A-216, administering help to locals as well as soldiers. After receiving a punji stake wound in the knee he was evacuated from the area and brought to a medical base for recovery.