The United States Air Force’s last serving prisoner of war Lt. Col. Rob Sweet, who endured 19 days as a prisoner of war in Iraq after his aircraft was shot down during Operation Desert Storm, recently retired after a 33-year career with the Air Force. With his retirement, Lt. Col. Sweet revealed details about the events that led to his capture.
Lt. Col. Sweet, who spent his career flying the Air Force’s venerable A-10 Warthog series of ground-attack aircraft. Operation Desert Storm served as the A-10’s combat debut, and the aircraft performed remarkably well, destroying more than 900 Iraqi tanks and 2,000 additional military vehicles, along with 1,200 enemy artillery pieces. The A-10 proved so deadly that in a single day A-10 pilots successfully destroyed 23 Iraqi tanks.
Lt. Col. Sweet himself flew over two dozen successful combat missions while in Iraq. His 30th mission, however, would go very wrong.
On February 15, 1991, roughly a month into the war, Sweet and his flight lead, Captain Stephen R. Phillis, were dispatched on a mission to hunt for tanks belonging to the Iraqi Republican Guard about 80 miles north of the border with Kuwait. Sweet remembers feeling “keyed up” because 80 miles was farther than any A-10 had penetrated into Iraqi airspace, and Sweet knew that if anything went wrong the pair would be a long way from help.
When they arrived in their mission area, Sweet and Phillis came under heavy enemy fire. According to Sweet, standing orders at that time was to leave in such a situation in order to avoid being shot down. The crew, following orders, turned their aircraft around and began to navigate away from the area before something caught their eyes: a row of Iraqi Republican Guard tanks that looked as if they had not yet been hit, a surprise to both Sweet and Phillis because the United States had been relentlessly bombing the Iraqis for 30 straight days.
Unable to pass up the opportunity, Sweet and Phillis went in for an attack. The Iraqis responded with a surface-to-air missile that missed, and the A-10 crew followed up by attempting to attack the site from which the missile had been launched. Before they could do so, however, Sweet remembers feeling a light bump from behind, and, turning to look, he noticed that the rear end of his aircraft’s right wing was on fire. Sweet attempted to fly back south in the direction of the border, but the plane began to spiral out of the sky.
Realizing that he could not save the plane, Sweet ejected. He was met on the ground by Iraqi soldiers, and was taken into custody.
Captain Phillis, in an attempt to draw attention away from Sweet, intentionally drew enemy fire before he was also shot down. Phillis was killed in action and was posthumously awarded a Silver Star.
Sweet was released as part of a prisoner exchange and, after a 20-day recovery period back home, returned to join the 353rd Tactical Fighter Squadron in South Carolina.