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The Ballad of Barry Sadler : The War-Glory World of an Acclaimed Soldier of Song Has Shrunk to a Hospital Bed, and a Bitter Family Battle

January 27, 1989|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

Had Barry Sadler died when a bullet pierced the frontal lobe of his brain in Guatemala last Sept. 7, it would have been a clean ending to the sort of life storytellers tidy up and turn into popular mythology.

But the man whose "The Ballad of the Green Berets" burned an indelible impression on the mind of America 22 years ago, lives. He moves from bed to wheelchair to therapy room and back in the Cleveland hospital he now inhabits.

And so his story is about to take still another twist, as full of intrigue, confusion and good intentions gone bad as the war he came to symbolize.

Alleged inconsistencies between the nature of his wound and the accounts that came out of Guatemala--that Sadler accidentally shot himself--have sent rumors of attempted murder ricocheting through the mercenary-music-business-pulp-fiction circles through which the 48-year-old Vietnam veteran traveled.

Judge's Ruling Due

Meanwhile, on Monday, a Cleveland judge is scheduled to decide, based on a psychiatrist's report, whether Sadler--who has been hospitalized since the shooting--is competent to manage his own affairs.

Based on that decision, the judge may also then adjudicate the familial fire-fight that has developed over who should take custody of a man some consider Vietnam's only living hero.

On one side are Sadler's wife, Levona, 44, and his children, who want Sadler returned to a medical facility in Nashville, where he had been flown from Guatemala. On the other is Sadler's 70-year-old mother, Blanche (Bebe) Sadler, who, with the help of a handful of Special Forces veterans, quietly sprang Sadler from a Cleveland VA hospital--at his own request, they say--the day before he was to be transferred from that facility back to Nashville.

As Sadler's attorney in Cleveland said, with a sigh: "I hope this doesn't turn into the last battle of the Vietnam War."

1966, the year Sadler's "The Ballad of the Green Berets" sold an estimated 8 million copies--battling Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Are Made for Walkin' " for the top of the Billboard chart--was a year on the cusp of a new era. Time magazine could still quote Special Forces Sgt. Sadler saying, with no apparent irony, that the Green Berets in Vietnam were just "overgrown social workers." Yet it was also the year that 10 Buddhist monks burned themselves to death in Vietnam to protest the war and anti-draft demonstrations gained momentum here.

To counter that momentum, the Army jerked the 23-year-old amateur songwriter from the jungles and transformed him into a Rambo of recruiting. The snap in his salute was evident even in the still photos that wound up in newspapers and on the cover of Robin Moore's book "The Green Berets." But Sadler, who claimed he wrote his famous song in a Mexican brothel, bore little resemblance even then to the spit-and-shine icon that appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show," friends say.

A career soldier who spent five years in the Air Force before joining the Army and becoming a Special Forces medic, he had already been taken off parachute-jump status after stepping on a "punji stick" planted by the Viet Cong. Still, he resented being pulled from active duty. And some of his Green Beret comrades resented that he drew song royalties while they fought.

In 1967 Sadler left the Army with an honorable discharge. He and Levona, the WAC he had married in 1963 after a three-week romance, moved to Tucson, and, while working at other jobs, he began efforts to parlay his hit song into an entertainment career.

He appeared in a film and handful of television shows, including "Death Valley Days." But as one business partner said, "he just didn't take off like Audie Murphy."

In 1972 the family landed in Nashville. Billy Arr, a Nashville songwriter, said Sadler walked into his Country Corner bar soon after arriving in town. They started talking about places to live in the area, then about the Army and music.

"About four hours later, Barry said, 'By God, I'd better get going, my wife and kids are out in the Winnebago.' "

As befits a man who is a legend in his own as well as other people's minds, just about anyone who ever met Sadler, it seems, has a stock of Sadler stories, most of them clearly polished from repeated tellings.

"The bad-ass Green Beret" was the core of Sadler's image, friends say.

"Like Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood, he knew what he was selling," said Paul Wyatt, an independent record producer and friend in Nashville. And as the king of macho, there were always men who wanted to knock him off the hill.

Billy Arr and others talk about one brawl Sadler had with a group of Indians in a Nashville country-Western band. "One of the guys cut him with a carpet knife. He had a pretty good pot gut by then, and it cut all the way through the lard," Arr said. But rather than go to a doctor, Sadler drank some more Jack Daniels, and "went home and sewed himself up."

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