May 30, 1991 12:00 PM

On Feb. 15, 30 days after the war began, Air Force 1st Lt. Robert Sweet, 24, was captured by Iraqi soldiers after parachuting out of his single-seat A-10jet fighter, which had been shot down by an Iraqi missile. The 1988 Air Force Academy graduate spent the next 20 days in captivity. There, bound and blindfolded at times, he endured beatings, severe malnutrition and interrogation with a gun to his head. After a two-month leave at home in Parkersburg, W.Va., with his parents and brother, Sweet rejoined his unit, the 353rd Tactical Fighter Squadron, in Myrtle Beach, S.C.—which is just where he wants to be. “Right now I can do anything I want, but I want to fly,” says the bachelor. This is the harrowing story of his captivity.

It was about 4 in the afternoon when another A-10 and I headed across the northern border of Kuwait into Iraq. I was a little keyed up because our target was a group of Republican Guard tanks 80 miles into Iraq—farther north than any A-10s had gone before. If you got hit, it would be a long trip back to safety.

I had already dropped my bombs when a surface-to-air missile was fired at me. It missed, but I saw where it came from, so we decided to hammer the guy that launched it. I was just about ready to roll in and nail him when I felt something behind me, just a bump really. I looked back and saw that the rear end of my right wing was all in flames. “Oh, man, I’m hit!” I yelled, and I started south, trying to make it to the border. But about a minute and a half later, the plane spun out of control and started spiraling downward.

You train for this kind of emergency, but nothing can prepare you for when it really happens. Even as I was spiraling, I was trying to throw the right switches to regain control, but the plane was just too badly damaged. I was hit at about 12.000 feet, and when I saw from the gauge that I was passing 6,500, I said. “It’s time to get out, “cause this plane isn’t going to do anything.”

So I pulled the handle. There was a rush, a little jolt, and I was hanging in the chute and it was all quiet. All that panic, throwing switches and bells going off, and then it was just dead quiet in the chute. Just a little breeze. Peaceful almost. I threw off my mask, then looked down. I could see all the tanks and I was trying to steer away from them, but I knew I was going to hit close. That’s when I said. “Oh, man, this is not looking good.”

Before I hit the ground about 200 guys came out of these little holes. I didn’t even have a chance to get my radio out of my survival vest and talk to anybody. “Can it get any worse?” I thought, and then of course it did. The horde started running toward me and shooting. With all the commotion, I forgot the correct procedure for landing, so I tore my Achilles tendon a bit when I hit the ground. I landed about 50 yards from a T-72 tank—right in the middle of it. I stuck up my hands, but when they kept shooting, and I didn’t know whether they were aiming at me, I bowed my head and covered my face with my arms.

The guys came up, and half of them tried to take my gear off of me while the other half beat the hell out of me. They were pissed off because I had just been dropping bombs on them. I got about seven rifle butts to the head and ended up with a black eye and a big gash. I was afraid my head was going to come apart and prayed, “God, don’t hit me again.”

Finally, some officers dragged me away from the dudes who were hitting me. I guess they knew I was worth more to them alive than dead. They drove me in a jeep for about five minutes to a bunker, where they saw my eye was bleeding and put some iodine on it. Then they gave me cold rice and beans and interrogated me in broken English. Later that night they threw me in a car and drove like maniacs through the desert toward Baghdad. Over the next two days they’d drive for a while, stop at a bunker or a house, sometimes interrogating me, then drive again. On one stop they put more iodine and a little bandage on me. But when they brought in some pills and a needle, I told them to get lost because I didn’t know what kind of pills they were. And although I was in pain, I hate needles.

I was treated pretty well until Feb. 17th, when I got my Welcome to Baghdad initiation. On the trip, I’d been blindfolded most of the time and tied up with ropes. In Baghdad they put me in handcuffs and wrapped surgical tape over the blindfold. Then they rushed me down an alleyway, and a guy kept pushing me. saying, “Run!” They shoved me into a little room, knocked me clown and beat me pretty bad with some kind of thick rubber hose. I got hit eight or nine times on the legs, but they were careful not to break any bones. They wanted to beat my spirits down but not leave any marks that would show. I think they were concerned my wounds would look bad on-camera if they needed to photograph me for their propaganda.

They kept me there for about two or three hours. They’d interrogate me and smack me again, and I would yell. I mean, it hurt like hell, but I figured if I made it seem like it hurt even worse than it did, maybe they wouldn’t hit me as much. Then they drove me to a prison and took me into a kind of lobby where there were about 10 guards. Everybody got in a kick or a punch. They took off the blindfold and handcuffs and threw me into a cell.

It was cold and dark, and I remember thinking. “Well, this is home for a while.” The cell was about 8 by 15 feet. It had a stone floor, a big metal door with a little slot in the middle and a dirty window about a foot wide and covered by a grate. I got a little blanket and a thin foam pad. They let me sit there overnight, and the next day they took me downstairs. I was sitting in a chair, and some guy said, “Now you will go to hell.” I was blindfolded again, then he hit my left ear with his hand, popped my eardrum and beat on me a bit. Someone put a gun to my head and started interrogating me for information. I won’t go into that because that’s all classified.

Back in my cell, I’d have the blindfold off. Twice a day they’d come around, once with a little water and once with a little food—mostly rice and greasy broth. I nearly starved in that first prison. Guards in the hallway were constantly yelling in Arabic or beating somebody. I knew there were a couple of other Americans in the same prison because I heard their voices. Now and then I’d hear the Iraqis shout an English word like “Bush” or something. You don’t exactly get eight hours of good-sleep. It’s more like you never sleep and you’re always asleep. I don’t remember ever actually dreaming. Every night you’d hear our guys bombing them, going downtown and hammering them. It was scary, but it also boosted your spirits.

I whispered prayers a lot, and it seemed like everything I prayed for I got, like praying for the guy to come take me to the bathroom—and sure enough, he would. I was in my flight suit the whole time and only got to bathe once. I was one of the last guys, and it was a plastic trash can filled with dirty water by then. So I just poured water on my head. You kind of forget about the smell after a while.

I got into a routine. I’d get up every day and hack a mark on the wall to mark the day. Then I’d listen to the guards yak. I’d sing a few songs too, like “Country Roads,” because I’m from West Virginia, or “Proud to Be an American,” or a hymn we used to sing at the Academy. It goes, “Lord, guard and guide the men who fly through the great spaces of the sky.” I sang this for the guys who were still flying. I whispered the words because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I’d also pace around, but I tried to keep the physical activity down so I wouldn’t get too weak.

And I did lots of thinking. One time I thought about all the different flavors of ice cream—I had a craving for a vanilla cone dipped in chocolate. Or I’d think about my family, about all the vegetables I would plant in the garden back home, about all the things I wanted to do but never could do, like spending more time with my brother. He runs track, as I did, and I’d never even seen him run in a meet. I also thought about getting a master’s degree in history and doing something good, like volunteer work for the Red Cross. But what bothered me the most was thinking about my poor mother. I pictured her cooking breakfast; then I would imagine the knock on the door and the guy in an Air Force uniform with the bad news about me. I knew she would cry a lot, and I prayed for her to have strength.

On the night of the 23rd, some bombs came very close. At first they scared the heck out of me. The ceiling fell down, the window blew in, and I thought. “Well, this is it.” But the Iraqis kind of panicked. They dragged us all out of our cells, drove us in an old bus to another prison and threw all the American POWs together into one big cell. At first we were real quiet, not knowing what to expect, but after about five minutes we all started talking. There were 11 of us from all branches of the military—10 older guys and then me. Everybody told his story, how he got shot down and all. Since I was one of the most recently captured. I told them what had been happening with the war. I told Jeff Zaun, “You were on the cover of Newsweek,” and we all laughed. I had seen him on TV making his statement for the Iraqis, and I said, “I expected you to be bigger.” There wasn’t any rank, no one calling anybody sir. We joked about the guards, laughed a lot. One of the guys looked out the window and thought he saw two cows. I guess it was just the way the light was flickering. All night we sat around talking, just like a slumber party. It was great.

The next morning they took us out into a courtyard and made us sit there all day. We hoped we’d get to stay together but figured we wouldn’t. Later in the afternoon they took us to another cell block in the same prison and split us up again, one guy to a cell. But it was different here. It was a civilian prison, with sunlight coming through the windows. You could talk some through the doors, though they didn’t like us talking to each other. They fed us well, three times a day, usually rice and some kind of tomato soup. But toward the end, I got real sick from dirty water or something, and by the time I was freed I had lost 13 lbs.

On March 3, they started prettying us up. They shaved us, gave us new clothes—those yellow pajamas—and six blankets instead of one. Then this guy came in and said. “I tell you, you will go home in five minutes.” I thought it might be bull, but then he came back and walked me out to a bus. I saw this big portrait of Saddam and thought he still must be in power, which kind of bummed me out. I was hoping he’d been overthrown. Then they drove us to a nice hotel, and about 10 Red Cross people came on the bus and they told us, “You’re going home today. We’re going to take care of you.”

On the bus we were calm and cool because there were still a number of Iraqis around. But once we got up into the hotel room, we all started talking in loud voices and cheering. At first we were all together, Americans, Brits, Kuwaitis—maybe 30 of us. Then the Red Cross split us up into different rooms. They gave us tea and coffee and talked to us, telling us how the war had gone, looking us over to see if we needed treatment for anything. They said that we would have to stay for the night because the weather was bad and our plane couldn’t get into Baghdad.

I was still feeling sick, and I just picked at the steak they offered us and ate a couple of oranges. They gave us each a room to ourselves, but after being alone so long we all wanted to walk around and be with each other. I think they had some video movies, but we didn’t watch them. We just talked the whole time, kind of like when a track team rents a floor of a hotel for a meet and everybody piles into one room.

A Red Cross chartered plane was waiting for us at the airport. It was murky outside, drizzling, really awful looking. Brown clouds, sand blowing, and the visibility was about two miles. Then we took off and flew to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the sun was shining. It was like going from hell to heaven. Then it hit me and I thought, “Boy, that was really a nasty place.” On the ground, I saluted General Schwarzkopf, shook his hand and gave him a big old hug. Later they flew us from Riyadh to Bahrain and put us aboard the hospital ship Mercy, where we were kept in bed, fed and spoiled. Finally, on March 9, we flew back to the U.S. on the jetliner Freedom One.

The experience changed me. I take life a lot easier than I used to, smell the flowers, keep from getting upset over little things—I’m more patient. Right now, I just want to relax and run around with my friends from high school and my girlfriend, Christina, who graduates this month from Xavier University in Cincinnati. All in all, I like the way my life is going. And I don’t regret going over there, fighting and getting shot down. That’s what I took an oath to do.

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