The year was 1966. The month was May. The Vietnam War was dividing the country as the U.S. made their way into Cambodia, civil rights marchers were protesting across the nation, and China set off their third nuclear bomb. Rock and roll ruled the pop charts, as The Rolling Stones were having their 19th nervous breakdown, Nancy Sinatra’s boots were made for walkin’, Bobby Fuller fought the law (and the law won), but it was Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, an Army medic who served in Vietnam, who began a five-week run at #1 on the Billboard charts with “The Ballad of The Green Berets”:
The music charts weren’t as polarized then as they are now. Besides all the latest rock hits, you could find traditional pop (“My Love”, Petula Clark), R&B (“Uptight”, Stevie Wonder), country (“Cryin’ Time”, Ray Charles), instrumentals (“Theme from Zorba the Greek”, Tijuana Brass), even blues (“Scratch My Back”, Slim Harpo). Sadler’s solemn tribute to the troops, co-written by Robin Moore (whose novel “The Green Berets” formed the basis for John Wayne’s 1968 movie), struck a chord with many Americans, even those who opposed the war, honoring those elite soldiers who put country before personal feelings and served with pride.
As for SSgt. Sadler, his music career faded after his mega-hit, and he found a second career writing paperback novels about Casca The Eternal Mercenary, a Roman soldier who stabbed Jesus on the cross with his spear, and was cursed to wander the world in eternal combat until The Second Coming. Tragedy struck Sadler when, in 1978, he shot and killed one Lee Emerson Bellamy, ex-boyfriend of Sadler’s then-lover. In 1988, Sadler himself was shot in the head in Guatemala City, becoming a quadriplegic suffering from brain damage. He died in a Tennessee VA Hospital in 1989. Sadler was 49.
As we celebrate Memorial Day today, take the time to reflect on those who fought and died in the cause of freedom. Though it seems our country is even more divided today than it was in 1966, remember we’re ALL Americans, and would not have even half the privileges we have today if it weren’t for those who gave all, men like those of The Green Beret.