NAPLES, Fla. — Air Force Brigadier General Jim "Boots" Demarest is on a mission- to have the Medal of Honor awarded to fighter pilot Stephen Phillis, an unsung hero of the war in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm.
The last time an Air Force pilot was decorated with the medal was during the Vietnam War.
“Once I got to the academy and got exposed to airplanes and fighter aircraft, especially, I was hooked.”
For Air Force Brigadier General Jim Demarest, serving in the military is like family, and those you serve alongside are like brothers.
“I actually had an uncle who had served in World War II which, by his accounts, single-handedly won the air war over Europe," says Demarest. "I was fascinated by his stories and he encouraged me to apply to the Air Force Academy, which I did.”
It was at the academy where Jim would meet Stephen Phillis. Together, they shared a bond over boxing, both being left-handed- or southpaws.
“Steve and I trained a lot together," explains Demarest. "He ended up being my corner man in a championship bout in about 1980 and that started a friendship that went a bit of a different way. We both went to pilot training. Steve decided he wanted to fly the A-10, I elected to fly the F-15 and so our aviation career paths diverged. Yet, we shared a lot of common experiences in pilot training and the fighter weapons school. Then Steve was activated in August 1990 to kick off Desert Shield and later served in Desert Storm.”
On February 15, 1991, Demarest says his friend Steve Phillis and his brand new wingman Lt. Rob Sweet were tasked with attacking Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guards Division. After making several successful passes, a surface-to-air missile was fired at Sweet’s plane. He deployed flares to escape it. A second missile hit him from behind, blowing off part of his wing and sending his plane into a steep spiral. Sweet ejects and when his parachute opened, he was left dangling over the elite Iraqi armored division he had just finished bombing. Steve flies an orbit over the division to draw fire away from Sweet’s descent. He fired flares to draw attention, making his A-10 a target. It’s at this moment he knows he’s not coming back.
“He keys the microphone and using the codeword for the day, transmits ‘Enfield 3-7 is bagged as well,'" says Demarest. "And it’s the last radio transmission he makes, unbeknownst to his family, his fiancée, his friends, his fellow fighter pilots. Moments later he is engaged, shot down and killed by another Iraqi surface-to-air missile system.”
In that moment, Steve Phillis decided to put his wingman’s life before his own. His last act being that of heroism.
“He didn’t have to stay there," said Demarest. "He didn’t have to drop flares and make himself a target. He didn’t have to stand over those 10,000 angry troops now emboldened by their success. Yet, the thought of leaving, never crossed his mind. When you look at bravery above and beyond the call of duty, to save a fellow airman, to me- that checks all the boxes that we look for in our Medal of Honor recipients.”
The Medal of Honor is the highest and most prestigious military decoration that can be awarded. The last time a pilot was decorated with the medal was during the Vietnam War.
“So far, there have been no Medals of Honor for any combat bravery for Desert Storm," says Demarest. "I think it’s time for us to re-look at that and I can think of no more fitting case than that of Captain Steve Phillis.”
It’s a mission that Demarest has taken upon himself to see fulfilled. A mission with the hope that Steve’s story lives on.
“We’re going to start with a grassroots campaign and see where it goes," says Demarest. "But I have high hopes that, as the word of his heroics get out, that it will get interest from a lot of different outlets and different forms of media to help get the story out to the millions of people who need to hear it.”
You can learn more about Jim's mission by visiting his website right here. He is currently working to publish Steve's story into a book.