“I thought to myself ‘this is it – I’m a dead man,’” Lt. Col. Rob Sweet, last serving USAF POW and former A-10 pilot.
Lt. Col. Rob Sweet, the last serving US Air Force (USAF) prisoner of war (POW), retired on Jun. 6, 2021 at Moody Air Force Base (AFB), Georgia.
Sweet recalled the moment during Operation Desert Storm when his A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft was shot down by enemy forces southwest of Basra, Iraq, in the article Air Force’s last serving POW retires by Airman 1st Class Briana Beavers, 23d Wing Public Affairs.
“I thought to myself ‘this is it – I’m a dead man.’”
Sweet and his flight lead, Capt. Stephen R. Phillis, were flying a mission to eliminate enemy targets in the area. When they arrived, they were met with heavy fire. It was Sweet’s 30th mission in Desert Storm.
“Our orders at that point were to leave,” said Sweet, who retired as the deputy commander of the 476th Fighter Group. “If the target area is too hot, you have to leave. Don’t get shot down. We’ll come back at night or the next day, it’s not time to be a hero.”
Sweet and Phillis followed the orders and navigated away until they saw something they couldn’t ignore.
“We left and found a pristine array of tanks [belonging to Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guards Division] that had not been hit, which shocked us because by that point everything had been bombed for the past 30 days,” Sweet said. “We started attacking those (tanks) … I got launched on by a (tank), so we started attacking the site where it came from, and I got hit from behind.”
Sweet lost control of his steering after his A-10 was severely damaged.
“I tried a couple of things, and basically it wasn’t going to work so I punched out,” said Sweet.
After ejecting from the aircraft, Sweet said he was unaware of the traumatic events he was about to face upon landing next to about 15 angry Iraqi soldiers.
He was then captured and spent 19 days as an Iraqi prisoner of war. During that time, he experienced beatings and starvation, fought off diseases, and dealt with emotional and mental torment.
Sweet gives most of the credit to his military training for survival.
“The SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) school that we have is outstanding,” Sweet said. “There were very few surprises in the jailhouse – I knew what to expect.”
Thanks to a prisoner exchange effort, Sweet and many others returned back to America. Unfortunately, everyone didn’t make it back. Phillis, who at the time was the flight commander with the 353rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, was killed in action (after Sweet ejected and when his parachute opened, he was left dangling over the Iraqi armored division he had just finished bombing. To draw fire away from Sweet’s descent, Phillis flew an orbit over the Republican Guard Division. To draw attention he fired flares, making his A-10 a target. It was at that moment he knew he was not coming back. As already reported the Chief of Staff of the Florida Air National Guard, Brigadier Gen. Jim Demarest, started a campaign to award the Medal of Honor to Phillis).
“Shortly thereafter, I found out my flight lead was killed,” Sweet said. “I was not without psychological problems. I had survivor’s guilt, and it took me a long time to get over that.”
From those tough experiences, Sweet said he learned how to live again through the importance of taking life as it comes.
With 20 years on active duty and currently retiring as a reservist, Sweet has had a long career. The most fulfilling part was his experience as a squadron commander. Throughout that time, Sweet mentored countless Airmen, especially young fighter pilots, teaching them what it means to be a leader and how to make good decisions under pressure.
Photo credit: Andrea Jenkins / U.S. Air Force