The last photo taken of Capt. Stephen R. Phillis before he went down over Basra, Iraq, under enemy fire, intentionally giving his life to save that of his young wingman. Photo courtesy of James Demarest.
Spread out across six miles, the Iraqi Republican Guard’s elite 2nd Al Medina Armored Division lumbered across the Iraq desert Feb. 15, 1991. Two US Air Force A-10 Warthogs passed overhead, providing attractive targets for the 10,000 Iraqi soldiers amassed below. The Iraqis ultimately shot down both attack aircraft, killing Capt. Stephen R. Phillis and capturing his wingman, 1st Lt. Robert Sweet.
The first surface-to-air missile hit Sweet’s A-10. After Sweet had ejected, Phillis deliberately drew enemy fire using highly visible flares to give his wingman, who was vulnerable in his parachute, time to safely land.
While lingering under heavy fire for 3 minutes and 45 seconds, Phillis sent radio messages to search and rescue units, noting Sweet’s downed location. The Iraqis ultimately took Sweet as a prisoner of war and shot down Phillis’ A-10 with a surface-to-air missile. Phillis, who never ejected, was killed.
The Air Force posthumously awarded Phillis a Silver Star for valor in combat during Operation Desert Storm. Decades later, Phillis’ old Air Force Academy boxing friend, Brig. Gen. James Demarest, who is now the chief of staff for the Florida Air National Guard, still believes Phillis’ heroic sacrifice merits a higher recognition. In fact, he believes Phillis’ actions that day in Iraq merit the highest award of all — the Medal of Honor.
Demarest spoke with Coffee or Die Magazine about his endeavor to upgrade Phillis’ Silver Star.
“When I first heard that he had been shot down in Desert Storm, I was actually still flying F-15s,” Demarest said. “It wasn’t until about five years after I left active duty that it occurred to me that there was more to the story [than] was out there.”
Demarest started the investigation in 1997. However, “life happened, and I was unable to continue the investigation until about 20 years later,” he said.
Demarest’s search for answers led him to re-investigate the circumstances surrounding Phillis’ death. He interviewed Phillis’ friends, family, former fiancee, and his wingman, Sweet.
After Sweet landed, Iraqi forces imprisoned him at the infamous “Baghdad Biltmore,” a handful of cells in the basement of the Iraqi secret police headquarters, which was notorious for its brutal treatment of prisoners. Unaware that American prisoners were inside, US forces bombed the building Feb. 23, 1991. Authorities subsequently moved Sweet and 15 other prisoners to a civilian jail until their eventual release March 6, 1991. Altogether, Sweet was imprisoned for 19 days.
After speaking with Sweet for three hours in 1997, Demarest was able to make better sense of the radio calls and the communication gaps surrounding Phillis’ heroic actions. However, there were limits to what Sweet could recall. After all, he only learned of Phillis’ sacrifice after being released from captivity.
“Rob’s knowledge of what happened that day ended as soon as he pulled the ejection handle,” Demarest said.
Sweet retired from the Air Force in June 2021 as a lieutenant colonel with more than 4,000 hours of flight time and 33 years of active-duty service under his belt. Demarest attended the ceremony. “He and I have kept in touch, and before the Air Force Magazine article came out, I called him. I wanted him to know … this [upgrade effort] was coming,” Demarest said, referencing Brian Everstine’s March 2021 Air Force Magazine article, “Above and Beyond: The Fight To Upgrade One Airman’s Silver Star,”
“The upgrade effort that we’re going through may get [the award] to the Air Force Cross, it may get to the Medal of Honor, it may get nowhere else,” Demarest said, explaining his personal inspiration for pursuing the inquiry. “But if it continues the discussion and gets the story out, then mission accomplished.”
Demarest speculates that, since the Vietnam era, when many awards were inflated, the Air Force has been deliberatively conservative in its allocation of high awards for courage.
Demarest pointed out that Phillis’ heroism was not the first Air Force case passed over for the Medal of Honor. As of 2018, the Department of Defense has awarded only 19 Air Force service members with the country’s highest award for valor. The Air Force has yet to bestow a Medal of Honor upon any of its personnel for their actions during Operation Desert Storm.
The countless hours of research Demarest collected on Phillis’ legacy have culminated in a book that is scheduled for publication in February 2022, the 31st anniversary of Phillis’ death. A portion of the proceeds will go to a charity of the Phillis family’s choosing.
Lauren Coontz is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. Beaches are preferred, but Lauren calls the Rocky Mountains of Utah home. You can usually find her in an art museum, at an archaeology site, or checking out local nightlife like drag shows and cocktail bars (gin is key). A student of history, Lauren is an Army veteran who worked all over the world and loves to travel to see the old stuff the history books only give a sentence to. She likes medium roast coffee and sometimes, like a sinner, adds sweet cream to it.
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