On Nov. 5, Barry Sadler, whose 1966 hit song “Ballad of the Green Beret” implanted itself in the minds of a generation of Americans, died at a Veterans’ Hospital in Murfreesboro, Tenn.--quietly fading away despite the controversy and quibbling that had haunted him in the last months of his unusual life.
Fourteen months earlier, Sadler had received a gunshot wound to the head while riding in a taxi near Guatemala City, Guatemala. Following Sadler’s return to the United States, his wife and sons fought a sometimes vicious public battle with his mother and several Special Forces supporters over custody of the brain-damaged former Green Beret.
In February, 1989, a federal judge in Cleveland appointed a private guardian to oversee Sadler’s affairs and ordered him returned to Tennessee for treatment--as Sadler’s wife and sons had requested. Meanwhile, as a story Jan. 27 detailed, rumors circulated as to just how Sadler, who had turned from writing songs to writing pulp fiction about combat and mercenary exploits, had been shot.
Over the years, a mystique of military adventurism had built up around Sadler, and friends--some apparently genuine and some self-proclaimed--concocted a variety of scenarios about who in the shadowy, soldier-of-fortune world he inhabited might have done him in. Few who knew him well believe that he simply got drunk and shot himself--either intentionally or accidentally--as reports from Guatemala have it. But none have been able to produce evidence to the contrary.
A full autopsy was ordered following Sadler’s death, but the results will not be disclosed for at least three more months, said Sadler’s wife, Levona. Even when they are, she has no illusions that the autopsy will tell family and friends more than they already know. “We’ll never know what really happened, will we?” she said.
Meanwhile, those who see either a tragic hero or a darkly comedic anti-hero in the blustery, hard-drinking man will find poetic symmetry in the fact that Sadler’s son Baron is presently serving with the Army’s 82nd Airborne division in Panama, fulfilling the sentimental conclusion of his father’s “Ballad”: “Put silver wings on my son’s chest.”