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The True Story of Desert Storm “Top Gun” Pilot

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
December 11, 2023 3:01 am

The True Story of Desert Storm “Top Gun” Pilot

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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December 11, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, our next story comes to us from Air Force fighter pilot and “Top Gun” graduate, Jim “Boots” Demarest. Demarest will tell the story from the book about his friend, Five Nickels: True Story of the Desert Storm Heroics and Sacrifice of Air Force Captain Steve Phillis.

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Find it at all major retailers. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, the show where America is the star and the American people. And send your stories to our American stories dot com. They're some of our favorites. Up next, a story that comes to us from an Air Force fighter pilot and Top Gun graduate.

Let's take a listen. My name is Brigadier General Jim Boots Demarest. I was a classmate at the United States Air Force Academy of God by the name of Captain Steve Phyllis. And I'm going to tell the story about Steve and his life and the heroic circumstances around his shoot down and untimely death on the 15th of February 1991 during Operation Desert Storm.

Steve was a Midwestern kid born and raised in Rock Island, Illinois. He was the oldest of five children and described by both his mom and his dad as Dobson's strong willed child. Early on in his life, his dad was in the Air Force.

They had moved to Wyoming. And Steve thought his parents so oppressive that he decided to run away. So he packed all those earthly belongings at age four and went out the front door and his parents watched him walk all the way to the parade field.

He got underneath the bleachers and had packed a peanut butter jelly sandwich and lasted about six hours under the bleachers before coming back and realizing that perhaps his mother and father's rules were not as onerous as he originally thought. But as the oldest of five, he was a leader within the family. And, you know, we hear that a lot about oldest children, but in Steve's case, one of the examples that I think that kind of brings this out is that in Rock Island, Illinois, the family lived in a neighborhood full of children. And so there were constantly sports games going on outside. They would play street hockey and flag football and soccer. And as was often the case, the kids that were better athletes tried to put themselves all on the same team to compete against the kids that were not as athletic. And Steve was the kind of kid that would be almost always selected as a captain. And unlike most of his peers, Steve would pick all the kids that nobody else picked to be on his team. But he would take a few minutes before the start of a soccer game and coach them all up.

And nine times out of 10, the less athletic kids through Steve's leadership and coaching would come up on top of the neighborhood sports games. And it was kind of a testament to the kind of guy he was. He was very much an informal and a formal leader later in his life. But he he was an inspiring kind of guy, very quiet as a child, but kind of led by example and through action. He was a high school football player. He played in the marching band. But early on in his adult life, he determined that there was something more for him out there and he couldn't quite put his finger on it. But as he approached his senior year in high school, it became evident to him that a future in the military would align with his organized, fastidious personality and also with the fact that Steve felt a calling to serve. He was an altar boy.

He was a captain of whatever sport he was on. And so in late 1977, he wrote a letter and applied to go to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. And the letter that he wrote to his congressman is is a classic because unlike a lot of others who wrote their congressman to talk about the free education and that Steve's letter to his congressman was very focused on the fact that he felt that it was his duty as an American citizen to serve in the military and that the Air Force Academy would provide him with the greatest opportunity to serve.

He also thought it might be neat to be a pilot, which he mentioned in his application, but it was much more about service and his obligation to his country than for his own personal gain. So in the summer of 1978, Steve shows up in Colorado Springs with 1500 of his new friends to attend the United States Air Force Academy. And his parents made the trip that many parents do. They loaded up the family station wagon with all of Steve's worldly possessions, the other four children, and they made the long drive from Rock Island, Illinois, to Colorado Springs.

We're on a sunny, bright morning in June of 1978. Steve was dropped off and in short order taught to march and marched off with a group of a dozen or so of his new classmates. So when he graduated from the Air Force Academy on June 2nd of 1982, he was one of 450 classmates off to undergraduate pilot training. And Steve went off to pilot training with one goal in mind, and that was to be fighter qualified and to fly the A-10 Warthog as an Air Force fighter pilot. And his single-minded focus and determination drove him through the 52-week pilot training program. He excelled academically.

He was always extremely well prepared. He was a cool character under pressure, and those things in the military aviation world translated to success. And so on assignment night in late 1983, Steve was fortunate enough to get his first choice, got assigned the A-10 Warthog, and was on his way to Alex, Louisiana, to Suwon Air Base in the Republic of Korea. After being in Suwon for a while, upgrading to instructor pilot, it became clear to Steve that he wanted to excel in the A-10, and that means that he wanted to compete to attend the prestigious Air Forces Fighter Weapons School. Now many may know the weapons school as Top Gun from the Navy movie, but the Air Force Fighter Weapons School was more than just a place to do great flying. Steve got over 200 hours of instruction and platform instruction to make him not only a great fighter pilot, but a great instructor, and he loved to teach, and he loved to learn about the A-10.

And so while at Suwon, he was selected for and attended the prestigious Air Force Fighter Weapons School, where he graduated as a distinguished graduate, returning to Suwon Air Base to complete his two-year assignment in Korea. And you're listening to Brigadier General Jim Boots, Demarest, tell the story of Captain Steve Phyllis. And you're learning about a profile in character and a profile of some of the men and women who serve this nation, and particularly the ones that go to our academies, and that's at West Point, Indianapolis, and in Colorado Springs.

That's the Air Force Academy, West Point, of course, the Army, and the Navy in Annapolis, Maryland. When we come back, more of the story of Captain Steve Phyllis here on Our American Stories. MUSIC Here at Our American Stories, we bring you inspiring stories of history, sports, business, faith, and love, stories from a great and beautiful country that need to be told.

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Any monthly withdrawals or transfers reduce earnings. And we continue with our American stories and Brigadier General Jim Boots Demarest telling the story of Captain Steve Phyllis. Let's pick up where we last left off. Then it was time for another assignment and Steve was lucky enough to get a third assignment to fly the A-10. This time in a much different environment as he was shipped from Korea to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. And Steve was cruising along like the rest of us until summer of 1990 when Saddam Hussein's republican guards roll south from Iraq into a little country that at that time none of us had heard of called Kuwait. And Myrtle Beach was part of a quick reaction force at the time such that as soon as armor came south into Kuwait, Myrtle Beach was put on recall and told to get ready to deploy. And Steve as the weapons officer and tactical leader of the Panthers who were designated to be the first squadron out the door within a few weeks of the invasion are loaded on a C-5 and sent to Saudi Arabia to a little air base in the middle of nowhere.

So they land and the door comes down on the transport airplane and Steve and the others on the airplane are greeted by a 120 degree blast of heat from the desert, the likes of which they had never felt before. And they quickly prepared for the arrival of a squadron of 24 A-10s, which when they landed had half a load of fuel, the only weapons they had on board were gun, and they were the only thing standing between the republican guards and Saudi Arabia. And I think what people have to remember is at the time that Iraq invaded Kuwait, they had the fifth largest standing army on the face of the earth. They had just come out of 10 years of combat operations with Iran, so they were very experienced. They were equipped with some of the most modern and sophisticated Soviet-built aircraft and surface-to-air missiles that the world had seen.

And so while we know in the end that Desert Storm was a stunning victory, that was anything but assured in the summer of 1990. And so the buildup during Desert Shield was all about getting people ready. Now in the prelude to the war, Steve had been promoted out of being the weapons officer and now was the commander of sea flight. And a flight commander is essentially the officer in charge of about 12 other pilots in the squadron. And one of Steve's important pre-war taskings was to make what we call combat pairings.

And the idea here is that you would take your most experienced pilot and pair him with the least experienced pilot to average out the experience of the flight, so that as we went out there, it increased the survivability of the squadron overall. And so Steve, as the high-time A-10 pilot in his flight, decided to select as his combat wingman Lieutenant Rob Sweet. What we have seen is a redoubling of Saddam Hussein's efforts to destroy completely Kuwait and its people.

I have therefore directed General Norman Schwarzkopf, in conjunction with coalition forces, to use all forces available, including ground forces, to eject the Iraqi army from Kuwait. So Desert Storm kicks off and Rob and Steve are going to fly 29 of their first 30 combat missions together. And it is everything from benign attacks of unmanned targets to being shot out by surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery.

And they had an incredible experience back and forth. But the story really that I want to focus on surrounds their 30th combat mission. On February 15th of 1991, Steve and Rob were tasked on what was by far their most dangerous mission of the war. They were tasked to fly 100 miles north of the Kuwait-Saudi border and attack Saddam's elite Republican guards, the same units that had spearheaded the initial invasion and who were equipped with Iraq's most modern equipment. So they're tasked against the Republican guards, but not just any Republican guards. They happen to get tasked against the Medina Division, which later became famous for the Battle of Medina Ridge. They proved themselves throughout the war to be the most ferocious and dedicated fighters of any unit in the Iraqi Republican guards.

And the mission was very straightforward. To prepare the battle space for an upcoming invasion, they were to target artillery, armor and military equipment. What would make this mission even more difficult was that the Republican guards had concentrated their forces. So this unit of about 10,000 elite Republican guard troops were amassed in a circle about three miles wide and six miles across. And the idea behind that was to spread the equipment out enough to make it hard to target, but to provide overlapping fields of fire for the over 150 pieces of mobile anti-aircraft artillery and the 24 SA-13 batteries. Now, the SA-13 was the most modern and sophisticated surface-to-air missile that the Iraqis owned. It was Soviet-built and designed, and unlike other systems, it did not rely on radar.

It would track in the infrared and the electro-optical spectrum, meaning that the aircraft would get no electronic warning that it was being shot. And it was arrayed with overlapping fields of fire throughout this Republican guard unit. So Steve and Rob launch for their afternoon mission at about 2 p.m. local. They go up, they conduct a pre-strike refueling to top off on fuel, and they take their fully loaded A-10s a hundred miles north to try and find military targets against the Republican guards.

And targets they find. Steve is getting ready to roll in and do a strafing pass, and Rob is in an orbit at 10,000 feet, and the way that they ran the tactics here is that one guy would roll in and attack, and the other fighter in a supporting role would orbit overhead to look out for anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missile launches. So Steve rolls in, comes off target, and as he looks up, he notices that a surface-to-air missile has been launched at Rob Sweet. And Steve keys the mic and calls Enfield, break, SAM launch, and about the same time, Rob looks out and sees a surface-to-air missile has been launched, thin trail of white smoke, and the missile is stationary on his canopy, a sign that it is tracking toward him.

It's not moving left or right, it's tracking toward him. So Steve calls out the break, Rob dispenses chaff and flares, does a high-G maneuver, and successfully defeats the first surface-to-air missile that Robin had experienced in his Desert Storm missions. At this point, perhaps it was time to leave, but the A-10s had decided early in the war that if anybody on the ground shot at them, they were going to immediately return lethal fire. They were trying to discourage these SAM operators from shooting at Coalition aircraft, and there's no better way to dissuade someone from shooting than to shoot back at them. So consistent with their tactics, Steve rolls in, comes off a strafing pass, starts to make a turn, and now it's Rob's turn to roll in and deliver lethal fire against the surface-to-air missile launch site. At that moment, Steve sees that a second surface-to-air missile launched from a different location is guiding on Rob's airplane, calls for the break, too late, Sweet doesn't see it, and he's in his left-hand turn when he feels a little bit of a thump, and his airplane has now rolled wings level. It's not a violent explosion. There's no big bang, and he looks down, and there's a bunch of lights on in the cockpit now, and he looks out to his right wing and sees a big hole where the right wing used to be.

Most of it is gone. There's some residual fire from the fuel and hydraulic lines, and now all sorts of lights start to come on in the cockpit, indicating that there's some major malfunctions going on in the airplane. And you're listening to Brigadier General Jim Boots Demarest tell the story of Captain Steve Phyllis and his raid from a base in Saudi Arabia, 100 miles north, coming in contact with the Medina Division, the most ferocious division of Saddam Hussein's. What happens next? Well, we'll continue with this story.

We'll continue with Jim Demarest's story of Steve Phyllis here on Our American Stories. Tis the season of making the perfect wish list and the perfect playlist. Level up your listening and gift more than just a headphone this holiday with Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds and headphones. Breakthrough Bose immersive audio uses rich, spatialized sound to bring your fave holiday classics to life. World class noise cancellation straps you in for a not so typical silent night and custom tune technology analyzes your ear shape, adapting the audio performance so each whistle note hits higher and each sleigh bell rings even brighter than the last. It's everything music should make you feel taken to new holiday highs. It's more than just a present and it gifts like a party. So turn your ordinary moments into epic memories with the gift of sound.

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Any monthly withdrawals or transfers reduce earnings. And we continue with our American stories and with Brigadier General Jim Boots Demarest telling the story of Captain Steve Phyllis in a raid that cost him his life in nineteen ninety one. Let's return to Brigadier General Demarest with the rest of this story.

The controls are not responding. And so he reaches down and pulls the ejection handles and now is under parachute descending on top of the troops that he and Steve just got done bombing. Sweet takes off his helmet, checks he's got a good parachute. He can hear bullets whizzing by his head as he's making this five minute parachute descent. Low on fuel alone, orbiting at ten thousand feet in a slow moving airplane, over ten thousand emboldened Iraqi troops. After about a minute following Sweet's ejection, Steve has earned the right to leave.

Yet the thought of leaving never crosses his mind. So he gets back on the radio after getting the search and rescue started and starts to call other A-10s in the local area and connects with a flight called Packmeyer three and four and begins to talk to the flight lead. And what I think is important to understand that the A-10 is not equipped with a radar. And so in order for A-10 pilots to find something, they have to visually acquire it.

There's no radar or other gee whiz equipment that helps them find each other. So Steve is on the radio orbiting in a left hand turn at ten thousand feet. Everybody on the ground with a rifle, with an anti-aircraft artillery or with a SAM system is now shooting at Steve. And Steve is trying to talk this flight of A-10s to come over his position to help provide additional firepower and support because he's not willing to concede the fact that Sweet's going to get captured. Three minutes after Sweet ejects, Steve is still orbiting over the target.

And unfortunately, the inbound A-10s are unable to find Steve and locate Sweet's position. And so in an act that can only be considered selfless and heroic, Steve reaches down and purposely dispenses high visibility pyrotechnic flares. His intent there is to use those as a visual signal to get the A-10s eyes on. What in fact it also does is that anybody on the ground that had not yet seen Steve now sees it. Three minutes and forty five seconds after Sweet ejects, an eternity in a combat zone orbiting over an entire division of Iraqi troops.

Steve's A-10 is struck by an SA-13 and he quickly identifies the fact that it's mortally wounded. What does he do? The first thing he does is he gets on the radio and tells the guys that are inbound. Hey, guys, it's too hot here.

You should not come. Then and only after making sure that his inbound friends are safe, he turns the airplane south to try and put additional distance between himself and Rob's ejection location. Knowing that search and rescue forces are on their way to Rob. Steve makes it about 15 miles south, his airplane falling apart. He keys the mike on his way out of the area and in a voice as cool and calm as I'm telling the story today. Using the code word for the day for aircraft down, keys the mike and says Enfield 37 is bagged as well. Just a few minutes later, unbeknownst to his friends, his fellow fighter pilots, his wingman, his family. His A-10 is struck by another surface to air missile shot from a different Republican Guard unit that knocks the tail off of his A-10.

And the mortally wounded airplane cartwheels into the desert, killing Steve Phyllis on impact. Rob Sweet lands 50 meters from a Russian built T-72 tank and is swarmed by dozens of Iraqi soldiers, beating him with fists and rifle butts. Had it not been for a couple of Iraqi officers that came out and drug him out of there, he may not have survived his first minute on the ground. He is taken to an underground facility. He's transferred to Baghdad.

He is beaten and tortured and interrogated. But 19 days after he was shot down, the coalition air forces got word that Iraq was going to liberate all the prisoners of war. And at the time, Steve was awarded and earned the Silver Star and the Purple Heart for his heroism that day. Air Force magazine wrote a great article summarizing Steve's heroics and making the case and asking the question, what does it take for a fighter pilot to earn the Medal of Honor? Because although we've been in aerial combat for the last 30 years, no fighter pilot has earned the Medal of Honor since Vietnam. And look, Steve is a hero because the Silver Star recognizes gallantry in action. And the Medal of Honor standard is very high, as it should be. But to be awarded the Medal of Honor, a member has to display conspicuous gallantry at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty. So conspicuous as to clearly distinguish the individual from his comrades. It must have involved risk of life and it has to be against a military enemy in a named operation. And so when you look at those standards and the heroism of the story that I just told, I think that Steve Phyllis and his heroics check all those boxes.

And I'm not the only one. I've been able to garner the support of not only our entire class, but Steve's Wing Commander, now retired Major General Sandy Sharp, who was a colonel at the time and directly involved in Steve's combat valor award, agrees that upon further review of the evidence that Steve's heroics are worthy of the Medal of Honor. But the Medal of Honor upgrade process is difficult and long, and there's a political component to it. Meaning that after we assemble all this evidence as to what Steve did and all these sworn statements, a member of Congress has to come forward and endorse the fact that they support the upgrade of the combat valor award. And I am very pleased to announce that while I cannot mention the name of the United States Senator quite yet, a prominent senator has stepped up and said that they intend to endorse the package and put Steve Phyllis's award forward to upgrade his Silver Star to the Medal of Honor.

And whether it gets upgraded or not is beyond my control. But what is in my control is to share Steve's story of heroics in any way that I can. And I think that sentiment is best expressed by the dedication of the book Five Nickels, because I made the dedication to my children, to Gabby and Chad, so that you will know a true hero when you see one. And that is the story of Air Force Captain Steve Phyllis. And a great job on the production by Greg Hengler and a special thanks to Brigadier General Jim Boots Demaris for telling and sharing the story of heroism of Captain Steve Phyllis and his work during the Gulf War in 1991.

And history repeats itself again and again and again and again. Men and women in this great country step up and do things like Captain Steve did on that day for his buddy, for his brother in arms. And by the way, if you love the story and want to know more, Brigadier General Demaris has written a book called Five Nickels, the true story of the Desert Storm heroics and sacrifice of Air Force Captain Steve Phyllis.

Go to your local bookstore and order it or go to Amazon and the usual suspects. That's the story of Captain Steve Phyllis here on Our American Stories. That's the story of Captain Steve Phyllis here on Our American Stories. That's the story of Captain Steve Phyllis here on Our American Stories. That's the story of Captain Steve Phyllis here on Our American Stories. That's the story of Captain Steve Phyllis here on Our American Stories. That's the story of Captain Steve Phyllis here on Our American Stories.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-12-11 04:34:55 / 2023-12-11 04:47:24 / 12

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