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- Posted on Feb 4th 2011 4:30PM by James Sullivan
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But the biggest single of the year in America was recorded by one of the more unlikely pop stars of the modern era. Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler was a former Air Force enlistee and Green Beret medic who began recording songs when he was sent home from Vietnam after being wounded in action. Sadler's first single, 'The Ballad of the Green Berets,' hit the charts in early February of '66; a month later, it sent 'These Boots Are Made for Walkin'' on a hike from the top spot.
At a time when Americans were beginning to struggle with the question of whether it was right to be in Vietnam, the song – written, its author claimed, in a Mexican whorehouse – struck a chord with its unabashed patriotism. "Put silver wings on my son's chest," as the song's dead hero requests. "Make him one of America's best." 'The 'A' Team,' Sadler's second single from his debut album, also squeezed into the Top 40.
The crooning soldier led a wave of interest in the Army's Special Forces. His co-writer, author Robin Moore, had a best-selling paperback in 1966 with 'The Green Berets,' a controversial account of the force that included classified information. Sadler's autobiography, 'I'm a Lucky One,' came out in 1967, and in the following year 'The Green Berets' became a hit movie starring John Wayne.
However, Sadler ultimately proved to be a complicated spokesman for the military. Born in New Mexico to a pair of professional gamblers, he lived a life of mystery and confrontation. In the 1970s, he began writing a series of novels inspired by the legend of the Roman soldier who stabbed Jesus on the cross with the Holy Lance. Sadler's character, Casca, featured in dozens of books, many of which were ghostwritten, is cursed to live in eternity as a mercenary soldier. "No one writes slaughter like Sadler," the author bragged to his agent.
He had a big collection of Nazi memorabilia, named one of his sons Thor and once started a wrestling career wearing camouflage shorts. His penchant for hard living grew nearly as mythical as his hit song: "Barry would buy fun before he would buy bread," one friend told the Los Angeles Times.
Sadler's thirst for conflict led to a conviction for voluntary manslaughter in the late 1970s, when he shot and killed a country songwriter named Lee Emerson Bellamy after an ugly, weeks-long dispute over a girlfriend. Sentenced to four years in prison, Sadler served 22 days, later paying $10,000 in a wrongful-death suit.
In his later years, Sadler left his wife and sons to live outside Guatemala City, Guatemala, where friends suspected he was working as a mercenary. In the late 1980s, Sadler was critically wounded when he was shot in the head. Some said he attempted suicide; some believed he was targeted for secretly training the Contra rebels. Officials called it a robbery attempt. With money provided by Soldier of Fortune magazine, a few friends airlifted their buddy to the US. He died a year later in a hospital in Tennessee.