Lt. Col. Rob Sweet, the Air Force’s last-serving prisoner of war, retired June 6 after 33 years of service.
On Feb. 15, 1991, Sweet and his flight commander, Capt. Stephen R. Phillis, crossed the northern border of Kuwait, further into Iraq than any A-10 pilot had gone before. Their mission was to eliminate Iraqi Republican Guard tanks about 80 miles past the border of Kuwait.
“We left and found a pristine array of tanks that had not been hit, which shocked us because by that point everything had been bombed for the past 30 days,” Sweet said in an interview with Air Force Public Affairs.
The duo closed in. After dropping their bombs, however, a surface-to-air missile was released from an enemy launch site. As Sweet moved in to attack it, he felt a bump. Looking back, he saw the rear end of his right wing in flames.
In an interview with People Magazine, Sweet said his first thought was “oh, man, I’m hit” before racing to the border.
It was too late. Within minutes, he was forced to eject and landed 50 feet from the same tanks that shot him down.
After crashing, 200 Iraqi soldiers ran towards him, shooting and yelling. They beat him, leaving him with a black eye among other injuries before taking him captive.
For 19 days, Sweet experienced brutality as a prisoner of war. The constant beatings, starvation, disease and boredom in his 8-by-15-foot cell took a physical, mental and emotional toll. Despite his suffering, Sweet endured.
He was returned home in a prisoner exchange along with 15 other POWs on March 6, 1991.
He credits his military training, specifically his Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) school, with his survival.
“There were very few surprises in the jailhouse,” he said. “I knew what to expect.”
Not everyone made it back. Phillips was killed while trying to draw fire away from Sweet and coordinate a search and rescue.
“Shortly thereafter, I found out my flight lead was killed,” Sweet noted. “I was not without psychological problems. I had survivor’s guilt, and it took me a long time to get over that.”
Despite those feelings, Sweet found meaning.
“I don’t regret going over there, fighting and getting shot down,” Sweet said. “That’s what I took an oath to do.”
He found a sense of purpose in mentoring and instructing young airman, particularly fighter pilots.
The Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Charles Q. Brown, commended Sweet during his retirement ceremony.
“Rob, I want to take this opportunity to recognize your service to our nation and congratulate you on your retirement,” said Brown. “You’ve had an outstanding career that I know you, your family, friends and fellow Airmen are proud of. With your retirement it will be the first time in the history of our Air Force that we will not have a former POW serving. In closing, thank you for all you’ve done.”
Sweet’s advice to young airmen is to take every experience day by day.
“Bloom where you’re planted,” Sweet said. “You’re going to have assignments you don’t like, but make the most of them and move on.”
Jack Erwin began at Military Times in June 2021. He is covering news on defense policy, education, foreign affairs with specific implications for the Air Force. Jack is a cadet at the US Air Force Academy, majoring in Humanities with a minor in Philosophy.