Roberts Ridge Memorial: SGT Philip "Spytech" Svitak
In 1970, Richard and Roseann Svitak spent the spring waiting for the birth of their first and only child, Philip. They waited. And waited.
Phil wasn't ready at nine months. He wasn't ready the next week. Or the next.
"My wife carried him for 10 months," Richard says.
Finally, their doctor stopped waiting. He opened up Roseann and brought Philip into the world. It was a risky operation at the time, and an infection almost took Roseann’s life. But she survived, and so did Philip.
Richard says, "We look at it this way: It took 10 months to make a hero.”
But he was a handful in the meantime. Roseann said, “The boy WAS NOT a Saint!! We wanted six children (as Richard and I both came from large families). Phil was six rolled into one!”
Phil joined the Army even before he graduated from Fremont High in 1989.
His father said Phil didn't want to join the Navy, stuck on a ship far from action. Instead he set his sights on the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment – the chopper group known as the Night Stalkers for carrying out its missions in darkness.
"After he found out about the 160th, what they did and everything, that's what he wanted to get into, Richard recalled, “With the Chinook helicopter doing all sorts of crazy things, that's what he wanted to do."
Phil served from 1989 to 1994, when he moved to the Joplin, MO, area, where Richard had found a job driving a FedEx route. Phil got a job driving for a lumberyard until Richard helped him buy a FedEx route into Oklahoma.
Phil was settling into the traditional American dream. He married Laura, a woman he met at work, and they had two sons, Ethan and Nolan.
But for Phil, something was missing, something an ex-soldier-only-child couldn't find behind the wheel of a delivery truck. "He missed his brothers, Richard said. “All those guys were his brothers."
Phil rejoined the Army in 1998, forced to start over but happy to be back.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Philip, called his mother from Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
“He was crying.” “He said, ‘Mom, they’re using our own planes with people on them and they’re flying them into the towers as bombs.’”
You could hear the hurt in his voice, she continued — “Phil had such a soft heart.”
“He was about fair,” his father Richard added. “He didn’t like bullies; he hated to see people hurt other people, to harm them for no good reason. It really hurt him when those planes flew into those towers.”
“He told us that he probably thought we’d be going to war with Afghanistan,” Roseann said.
The last time they saw Phil alive was at Thanksgiving that year. He was deployed to Afghanistan soon after, as a sergeant with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
"I knew he was going,” Richard said, “That was part of the job."
Phil's job took him to a snowy mountaintop called Takur Gar in eastern Afghanistan, part of Operation Anaconda, on March 4, 2002.
The mission was to establish observation posts in strategic locations, but the US force unwittingly landed in the midst of an enemy stronghold.
The pair of choppers attempting to insert a reconnaissance team came under immediate enemy fire and a SEAL, Neil Roberts, became the first casualty.
Phil was part of the rescue mission that flew into the same enemy fire.
Normally manning the left-side door gun, Philip moved to the right-side of the helicopter, the side that would be facing the enemy. As the chopper prepared to land it was peppered with small-arms fire.
In the book “Alone at Dawn,” writers Dan Schilling and Lori Chapman Fonfritz described what happened next, quoting from helicopter pilot Greg Calvert: “Although I only heard the aircraft noises, holes started popping through the windscreen and side windows, but I continued the approach. I called out, ‘Taking fire from 2 o’clock,’ and I heard Sergeant Phil Svitak’s gun open up on the right side. I felt a breeze of rounds whizzing by me.”
In short, controlled bursts, Philip began pumping high-velocity rounds into the enemy below.
“The entire troop compartment rocked back and forth just as Svitak opened up at 6,000 rounds per minute, projecting a liquid stream of bullets that connected him to the enemy,” according to “Alone at Dawn.” “The M134 (minigun) made a loud vrrrt! sound.”
As Philip kept up a steady rate of fire, an RPG slammed into the side of the helicopter, shredding the right engine. The aircraft shuddered. Automatic rifle rounds filled the air. Despite the danger, Philip refused to duck to safety. He kept his finger on the big gun’s trigger.
Seconds after the helicopter made a controlled crash into the snow, a burst of machine-gun fire hit Philip. According to “Alone at Dawn,” the men around Philip saw him “slump over his weapon, shot dead from a machine-gun burst that struck him in the chest.”
He was killed instantly, Richard said. “He didn’t suffer.”
The Svitak Freedom Ride was created in 2002 in Joplin, MO to honor Phil’s ultimate sacrifice. After a Covid-induced hiatus, it’s once again scheduled for Saturday August 23rd.
On the home page for the ride, Phil’s mother lists a few “facts” about her son.
The last one reads: “Philip was not a "follower.” Though he had no siblings he gathered friends quickly. He had laughing eyes, a quirky grin and an easygoing sense of humor. As a man, qualities others admired in him was his willingness to work hard, be dependable & responsible and his honesty. He gained the respect of those who knew him.”
And deserves the respect of all who know of his sacrifice.
Thank you Phil, and family!
I first met Phil at 13, I had just joined Civil Air Patrol. Phil was a year ahead of me in school, and was a great guy. He is one reason I also joined the army. When I git told by one of the guys about Phil, it was like getting hit in the gut with a bat, I had just returned from Kuwait, and Phil was just the first of several friends lost over the next 10 years. I had the honor of speaking at his memorial in Fremont. Phil and the others are always in my heart and never will be forgotten.
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