Naples man’s 25-year quest to honor friend from the Gulf War

Reporter: Michelle Alvarez Writer: Matias Abril
Published: Updated:

A significant step in a Southwest Florida man’s 25-year quest to get his friend from the Gulf War recognized with the Medal of Honor posthumously.

Earlier this month, Jim “Boots” Demarest handed off the medal of honor package for U.S. Air Force Captain Stephen Phillis to Sen. Tammy Duckworth so it can officially be submitted to the Department of Defense for further review up the chain of command.

Demarest wants to share Phillis’ story and the message we can take from it: the self-sacrifice, the commitment, and the dedication to others, but also believing in something higher than yourself, and putting your life on the line.

“All veterans gave some; some gave all. Steve was one of those give-it-all types of people, both before and, of course, on his fateful flight on February 15th of 1991,” Demarest said.

Captain Steve Phillis was a fighter pilot who was killed in action when his plane was shot down in the 30th combat mission of Desert Storm.

“Steve, if he were to learn of us talking about this now and of our effort to upgrade his valor award, he would not be very pleased. He would tell us that he was just doing his job,” Demarest said.

Phillis was leading his wingman, First Lieutenant Rob Sweet, on their 30th combat mission of Desert Storm on February 15th, 1991.

“At the time, he was 29 years old as a flight commander when Desert Storm kicked off, and because of his position as a flight commander, he was required to do some very important work, one of which was to establish combat pairings,” Demarest said.

They were tasked with attacking Iraq’s vaunted medina division of the republican guards, by far their most dangerous mission of the war.

“Steve notices that a surface-to-air missile has been shot at Rob, and so, Steve gets on the radio and calls break chaff and flares. Rob picks up the missile and visually rolls as 10 deploys most of the countermeasures in the airplane and successfully defeats the first surface-to-air missile shot at him in Operation Desert Storm,” Demarest said.

But near the end of their attacks, Sweet was forced to eject from his fighter jet.

“He’s orbiting, watching Rob in his about five-minute parachute descent, not watching out for himself, watching out for his wingman,” Demarest said.

Phillis immediately sprang into action to save the life of his wingman. After spending three minutes and forty-five seconds circling Sweet, Phillis was shot down.

“Rob tells a story of being underneath a parachute, and it was kind of quiet for a while, and then suddenly the world erupted, and he originally thought they were shooting at him. Only later that he learned that no, in fact, they were shooting at Steve, so, he knows that the aircraft is not going to make it back. Does he turn around and go home? No.” Demarest said.

Phillis left behind a fiancée and a family. He was awarded a Silver Star posthumously for his actions, but there was never a complete investigation.

In September, Demarest handed off the Medal of Honor package for Phillis to Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a big step in the lengthy process that takes up to two years to decide.

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