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

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."

"Several times I heard (Special Forces veterans) accuse him of prostituting the beret to make money," said Bill Parrish, a Nashville real estate agent and friend. "Barry always handled it well. He'd say, '. . . Before that, everyone saw that hat and thought you were a bellhop.' "

"Barry is a closet romantic," said Duke Faglier, a barrel-chested adventurer of sorts from Atlanta, who wears a big diamond in one ear and says he and Sadler considered themselves brothers.

"He said he was born with the body of a tank and the soul of a poet. Unfortunately there was a lot more call for a tank than a poet."

"I describe him in four words," says Arr. "A sheep in armor. He hated violence. But he always had to put up a front because people expected it."

The February Soldier of Fortune features an article on Sadler's life in Guatemala, where he moved in 1983. In typical "jist 'tween us gunslingers" tone, it paints Sadler as something of a gun-running mercenary, or "merc" in Soldier of Fortune parlance.

The people who claim to know Sadler best say he nurtured the mercenary image only to sell books.

"The routine in Guatemala was party till 2, write till 7, sleep till 2, party till 2," said one friend. "That didn't leave much time for being a mercenary."

Pictures show him posing with knife-wielding Guatemalan troops, or slinging a rifle over his shoulder for a shot with some Contras; and his writing desk was invariably strewn with guns, knives and hand grenades.

But friends contend he had long ago lost the stomach for killing. When he went into the field, it was usually to use his skills as a medic to help children.

Faglier thinks that Sadler's affection for the children of Guatemala may have come from the things he saw in Vietnam.

"He said he never met a people who love their families more than the Vietnamese," said Levona. "He said that when a child died, they cried from the soul."

Not everyone, though, believed he was only posing.

The Hall of Fame Motor Inn's Sound Track Lounge in Nashville is the kind of place where people wear their music business connections on the back of silk "Waylon and Willie" tour jackets. It was Sadler's favorite Nashville hangout, and just about every songwriter, pedal steel player and small-time hustler who hangs out there knows him. Many there say they believed the aura of menace and adventurism that clung to Sadler, especially after stories that he was doing mercenary work began filtering back from Guatemala.

"If he didn't tell me (he was a mercenary) he implied it," said Hurshel Wiginton, a 21-year veteran of TV's "Hee Haw." "He never answered questions about it."

More than once, said one Nashville woman who asked not to be named, Sadler would goad her with the sort of chauvinistic statements on which the press sometimes quoted him, and "people were afraid for my safety because I got in his face."

But, she recalled, she could never shrug off the Sadler stare.

"There's a look in the eye, it's a look of having no fear," she said. "When people have that, you know they're . . . someone to truly fear . . . I think he was one of those people who really doesn't care. . . ."

"He laid it on heavy and pretty much alienated everyone in the music business," with his macho routine, said Parrish, who worked with Sadler on some music projects.

In Nashville, where living music stars have their own museums selling Barbara Mandrell salt shakers and Hank Williams Jr. coffee mugs, fame is the fuel of business.

But neither Sadler nor those he teamed up with were able to get the spotlight to focus on their projects as brightly as it had illuminated "The Ballad of the Green Beret."

Instead, Sadler and his cohorts earned a living by moving from one job to another, one scheme to the next.

One time, Arr recalled, they drew up a prospectus to hold regional, no-holds-barred contests to find the toughest man in the world. Another time they decided to turn Sadler into a pro wrestler. Wearing camouflage shorts and a cape with sergeant's stripes, he would swagger into the ring to the tune of the Green Beret. Neither project got off the ground.

Through the mid-'70s, Sadler would make occasional forays out onto the club or concert circuit. He was the first to admit that his voice and musical talents were limited, said Arr. But "I was always amazed to see the way people welcomed him due to that song. They'd give him standing ovations when he hit the chorus to Green Berets. They went insane."

But gradually, he turned to writing books, instead of songs.

Sadler has written more than 30 books, in three series of action-adventure novels. In the most popular, "Casca the Eternal Mercenary," a Roman soldier receives a head injury similar to the one Sadler himself received, and is condemned by Christ to continue living and fighting wars.

"The way he describes things, he could make it rain on the page," said Robbie Robison, who became Sadler's literary agent in 1978 when they sold the Casca series to Charter books. "And he could make it rain blood. He told me once, 'No one writes slaughter like Sadler.' "

Over the years, readers have bought "a few million" copies of Sadler's books. But even with the royalties rolling in, financial security eluded Sadler.

Robison recalls a time when Sadler cashed a check for $20,000, and casually rolled the bills up and stuck them in his Levis.

"If he had $2 or $10,000, he'd spend it. It didn't matter," said Faglier, "and usually on other people."

He was perpetually pawning things, especially an intricately carved chess set he had packed out of Vietnam, friends said.

"He borrowed a piano of mine once, and damn if he didn't go and sell it," said Wyatt. "Somehow you didn't mind."

They didn't mind, friends said, because Sadler never failed to pay back his debts, financial or otherwise.

"Barry would buy fun before he would buy bread, and when he was having fun, he wanted everyone to have fun," said Arr.

In 1978, Lee Emerson Bellamy, the estranged boyfriend of a woman Sadler was seeing, decided to interrupt the fun. Sadler shot and killed the man.

Sadler's son, Thor, 24, recalls that "the month before, the guy was calling him names, said the Green Berets are sissies." The harassment reportedly became more serious, with Emerson, who had a long record of violent crime, calling Sadler and his girlfriend to recite rhymed death threats.

When Emerson showed up at the woman's apartment one night, Sadler followed him into a parking lot. Emerson reached into his pocket and Sadler saw a flash. He opened fire. The man had reached for his keys.

Published reports also quote Sadler as bragging, after his release, about the crack shot he had made--that he had nailed the guy between the eyes. But his statement in the court files states, "I drew my gun and fired aiming in front of him. The bullet broke up on impact with the glass and a fragment hit him in the head. . . ."

The case splashed Sadler back into the press for a short time. In the end, he plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to four to five years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary. The judge later reduced the sentence to 30 days with two years' probation. Sadler got off after 22 days on good behavior.

On a questionnaire Sadler completed for the probation department after his conviction, he was asked: "How do you feel about your marriage." His answer: "It's been good."

Later in the form he explained, though, "All of us are very independent and as such don't get on very well together. There is no hostility but we get along better when we're apart."

Early in the marriage, the family got along just fine, Levona said.

She recalls her husband reading poetry to her as she took baths. Older son, Thor, and Baron, 21, remember the stories Sadler would tell them, making them up from scratch or embellishing on children's books such as "The Little Engine That Could."

His gentle side never interfered with the military discipline with which he ruled the home, though.

"His favorite line was, 'I'll whip you till your butts bleed,' " said Thor, but, "We always cried louder than it hurt. It was a con we learned."

Standard punishment for the boys was to make them stand at attention, and they remember one time, after they had been fighting, that their father had them stand face to face in the yard, staring into each others eyes for an hour.

Both sons say they now appreciate the discipline. "He taught me self-control, how to control my temper . . . ," said Thor. "I know how to stare someone down."

A rock-hard young man with his father's jut jaw, Thor just graduated from college. A 2nd lieutenant in the Army Reserve, he wears the silver wings of the airborne division on a green military cap and a Soldier of Fortune emblem on his leather jacket. He goes on active duty soon and plans to become a Ranger or Green Beret.

Baron also has enlisted and hopes to join the Special Forces or Rangers.

Thor points proudly to a big knot on his brother's forehead, the result of a reported fight with a man 50 pounds heavier.

"Baron's fearless," Thor said.

Thor was 18 when his father moved to a town outside Guatemala City, where he leased a large ranch house with an enclosed yard. Sadler named it Rancho Borracho (drunkard).

Thor says he understood. "Dad was not your typical Ward Cleaver. . . . That didn't mean he didn't love us."

That's how Levona saw it too. He was always a womanizer, as are most men, she said. When she asked him how long he thought it would take to get over his affection for young women, he said "five years max," she recalls.

Meanwhile, both sons worked, and Levona managed convenience stores. Divorce was never considered, Levona said.

In Guatemala, Sadler "lived like a king," Faglier said. "Long-necked beers are 30 cents. The best-looking hooker in Guatemala City costs $30. At Rancho Borracho he had a gardener, a maid . . . for $250 a month, furnished."

Friends of Sadler in Nashville began getting calls from Guatemala on the night he was shot. The story, they say, was that he shot himself. Then it changed. His gun accidently discharged in a taxi coming home from the Don Quixote, a local bar which Soldier of Fortune calls a hangout for mercenaries who fought in or hope to fight in Angola, Zimbabwe, Algeria, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, El Salvador, or the Republic of Guatemala.

Among those who got called was Faglier, who had lived with Sadler at Rancho Borracho from time to time.

"I love this man," Faglier said last week, as he surveyed a roomful of dancing nude and semi-nude women at an Atlanta nightclub. "He's the closest friend I have in the world. We've whored together and drank together and soldiered together. I guess we're as close as two men can be who aren't queer."

Faglier arrived in Guatemala two days after Sadler's injury. The doctor at the Guatemala City hospital told him Sadler was brain dead, he said.

Faglier got on the phone, he said, and spent 24 hours calling friends, the State Department, the military, trying to get help. No one seemed to appreciate Faglier's point, that the life of an American hero was at stake, he contends.

Finally Faglier found a Lear jet in Naples, Fla. He called Robert Brown, the editor of Soldier of Fortune, where he and Sadler served as contributing editors. Brown charged the $9,050 fee on his American Express card. ("He (is) a hard-charging patriot and a good warrior," Brown said of Sadler.)

Ignoring the red tape usually required in such matters, the jet took off. Faglier and two paramedics hand-resuscitated Sadler, who was in a coma, on the trip home.

Almost no one who knows Sadler or has seen the wound to his head believes that it was self-inflicted, accidentally or otherwise. He simply was not suicidal, and even drunk, he knew better than to fool around with a handgun, friends say.

"If someone's shot at close range, it leaves powder burns," Faglier explained, demonstrating with his fingers the way he probed the edges of the bullet hole.

But there's another thing, he added.

Reaching behind his leather jacket, he fiddled with the waistband of the fatigues tucked into Indiana Jones boots, and pulled out an ammunition clip. The .380 Beretta Sadler carried, he said--and others have confirmed--was loaded with silver-tipped hollow points and explosive glaser rounds.

Either one of which would have made a vastly larger hole than the one in Sadler's head, he said.

Sadler's records can not be released because of the privacy act, and Thor Sadler, who was appointed guardian in Tennessee, says he has his own reasons for refusing to make them public at this time. But a medical authority who asked not to be named said that the wound, which he has examined, is inconsistent with the handgun story.

The State Department and the American Embassy in Guatemala City say that no one has come forward to question the account that appeared in the Guatemala press. And a spokesman for the FBI in Nashville said, "The FBI has no investigative interest in Mr. Sadler, at least not as far as we know here."

Paul Hill, who says he met Sadler at Ft. Bragg, N.C., in 1966, while both were in the Special Forces, encountered him again in the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Cleveland, while he and other volunteers were having a birthday party for a young Green Beret who had recently been paralyzed in El Salvador, he said.

Hill and other Special Forces veterans joined Sadler's mother rallying around Sadler, spending long hours with him in the hospital, talking to his doctors and therapists, and fielding the dozens of calls and letters that come in. Sadler had been moved to Cleveland from the Nashville VA for special therapy and evaluation.

Cleveland attorney Joseph Meissner, a Vietnam veteran, is representing Barry Sadler. Steve Somers, another Cleveland attorney and Special Forces veteran, is representing Bebe Sadler in her attempt to gain guardianship of her son.

"The only love Barry has in the world is Special Forces," his mother said. "If you ain't Airborne, don't get around him. You'll get that evil eye."

Bebe, who says her daughter-in-law "wanted Barry to stay a vegetable," said that on the day before he was to be returned to Nashville, Sadler asked to be checked out of the hospital and to remain in Cleveland. With the help of two former Green Berets with a van, they took him to a friend's home, cleaned him up, then checked him into a private hospital, she said.

The eight hours he remained out of hospital was long enough for his family in Nashville to sound an alarm that he may have been kidnapped. News reports stated that he had disappeared.

"All this garbage about him being abducted etc. is pure manure," said Somers. "The person on duty simply asked him what he wanted to do . . . . They realized this man is totally coherent. He is presumed to be competent unless proved otherwise. There was no underhandedness, no collusion. It was his own request. Period."

Family members in Nashville say they're perplexed.

"Dad's like a parrot. You tell him one thing and he'll repeat it. His logic center is gone," said Thor, who added that as far as he knew, Bebe Sadler had not been in touch with her son for years. "I don't know what these people's motives are. They shouldn't be there in the first place!" he said, the Sadler sang-froid melting.

The way they're treating him, his wife agreed, by putting a stuffed dog with a green beret in bed with him, shows that they don't know the man well.

"I gave him a cane, and told him he could use it to lift up the nurses' skirts," Levona said. "They give him stuffed animals. Men don't sleep with stuffed animals. You think Barry Sadler would sleep with a stuffed animal?"

With his toes sticking out from blue hospital slippers, a panther tattoo on his thick arm partly concealed by light-blue hospital pajamas, Sadler looks strong as a bull in his wheelchair seat. A corduroy Giants cap is pulled down over his head, almost concealing the fact that one side of his head is caved in.

Quivering slightly, Sadler reads aloud the name of a newspaper from a reporter's business card. He answers direct questions with brief phrases. More complicated questions leave him silent; his eyes flicker and roll up as if the answer might be printed on the red brim of his cap.

"Who would you like to have custody of you?"

"My wife," he whispers.

"Where would you like to stay while you're being treated?"

"Nashville."

(Sadler's mother, Paul Hill and the attorneys in Cleveland all contend that this was the first time he had answered those questions this way.)

What does he want to tell people who care about him, the public?

"Leave me alone."

Asked if wants to discuss how he was shot, he says, "No."

Asked if he there are people out to hurt him, he says, "Yes."

Asked to name his enemies, he doesn't respond. He just chews his gum and gives his famous killer stare.

Times Staff Writer Paul Dean contributed to this story.

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