Veteran recalls wartime in the desert

Veteran Patty Newsom was the only woman in her section during the

Gulf War.

Editor’s note: The following story is part of the continuing series of profiling local veterans in honor of Veterans Day this month.

When Patty Newsom deployed with the U.S. Army for the Gulf War in December 1990, she left behind her newborn and a 2-year-old daughter, and soon found herself as the only woman serving with her section.

She said leaving her children was rough, especially with it being right before Christmas.

“But duty calls. You gotta do what you gotta do. It was miserable,” she said.

Her second daughter was born on Aug. 30, 1990. The next day, her then-husband David, who was also serving in the Army, shipped out. After 30 days of maternity leave, Newsom returned to duty and began preparing to go to war.

She took her children to Boston where her family lived. “You miss the first walk, the first Christmas, first this, first that,” she said. “It takes a toll on a family, believe me. My two-year-old was a mess when I came back.”

At that time there was no email, Facetime or Skype to keep families connected during deployment.

“When I left Fort Campbell, I wrote a diary, I wrote down every single thing for my kids. And, I used to make them little cassette tapes,” said Newsom. “I did a lot of that stuff so, God forbid, if something happens, they would have my book, they would have my cassette tapes, just so the kids would know what goes on day-to-day.” She also took photos to send home for them.  

Newsom was accustomed to being among few women while serving in the Army, but in wartime out in the desert, it was difficult being the only woman in her section. She recalls having to build a makeshift shower and hiding under a truck to go to the bathroom. She did her laundry in a little bucket and never felt clean.

“It was no place for a woman,” she said. “It was not the way I was used to living.”

Most of her deployment was spent in Bahrain. Their section set up base in a parking garage near the airport.

“When I got there at the airport where we were staying, right at the airport, they had the scud missiles going off,” she said. “When we’re driving around, we’re doing our thing, you can see the leftover missiles, you can see on the side of the road these little families living in tents, kids that are starving, dead goats in the road, and you got kids running up to the truck looking for food; that’s what killed me.”

Although it’s been more than 25 years since the war, the memories still come back to her.

 “You don’t forget certain things,” said the 54-year-old veteran.

She remembers seeing the missiles on the side of the road and not knowing if they were still active or wondering if someone walking along the road was hiding an explosive.

“It wasn’t a safe place,” she said

She learned she was going home in early 1991, but it was not an easy transition. She had to live in a Motel 6 for a while because she didn’t have housing. Her husband remained deployed for another month after she got home. And the kids had to adjust to mom being home again and living in a motel. Eventually, she had a new house built and also learned she was pregnant with her third child. A few months after David got back, he received orders to ship out to Korea.

When her daughter was born in April 1992, she only weighed 4 pounds, 11 ounces and was sick, showing symptoms related to Gulf War Syndrome. She couldn’t gain weight and was in and out of the hospital.

“That’s when I had to get out,” Newsom said.

She left the Army in 1992.

“It took a lot to adjust,” she said, referring to the move back to civilian life.

“You have to find your way again.”

For her Army service, Newsom received two Good Conduct medals, an NCO Professional Development ribbon, M-16 Rifle Expert Badge, National Defense Ribbon, Southwest Asia Service Medal, Saudi Arabia/Kuwait Liberation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Army lapel button.

Newsom, who is originally from Boston, joined the Army when she was 19 years old in 1983. She said her father loved the Army, but he couldn’t join because he had lost a kidney when he was a child. After graduating from high school, Newsom was working at McDonald’s making $4.35 an hour and living with her parents, but she knew that wasn’t a long-term plan.

“I went to the recruiting office. If my father couldn’t do it, I’m going to do it,” she said. “I went in for my dad, mainly, and I loved it. It was a little hard because I had never been away from home.”

She completed basic training at Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C. She started out thinking she would work in administration.

“It wasn’t me. I’m not the type of person to sit at a desk.”

So, she went to petroleum school at Fort Lee, Va. In her new job she was refueling helicopters.

Newsom said joining the Army was the smartest thing she ever did.

“I loved it,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the kids, or them shipping him (David) to Korea, I would have stayed in, but you have to prioritize. The children come first.”

She went on to work for Delta, the Veterans Administration and as a program assistant for the Department of Labor. Since 2005, Newsom has dedicated her time to volunteering and spending time with her two grandchildren. She moved to Kissimmee about a year and a half ago, and you can often find her downtown at American Legion Post 10.

“I try to do as much as I can for veterans. I volunteer as a bartender; I love it. I donate a lot during the holidays for the kids, I’m all about the kids. Any time they need help, I’m always here,” she said.