When 24-year-old Staff Sgt. Gary Lee Woods Jr. left Fort Carson for Iraq on his third deployment in 2008, he gave his mother a pair of his dog tags. He told her to wear them until he came back.
Six years later, Becky Johnson still wears the dog tags because her son never returned. But while Woods never made it back to his home in Fountain, Johnson came back last week for the first time in years to rescue the house from the animals, vagrants and weeds that had overtaken it.
Since his death, the house at 801 Desert Circle has been vacant, abandoned by Woods' wife of six years after he was killed by a suicide bomber in Mosul, Iraq, on April 10, 2009. The bank never claimed the house, which became home to several animals.
Its walls - once repainted by Johnson for her son - were covered in graffiti and its roof was rotting away. Weeds filled the yard, and like an abandoned and cursed castle, the corner house could barely be seen from the street.
A year ago, a man who claimed he was a neighbor found Johnson on Facebook and asked if he could have the house. Johnson, always in search of a project, immediately kicked into gear. The home had been Woods' first, so she wasn't about to lose it.
"He was proud of this house - I could see it in his face, I could hear it in his voice," she said Sunday.
Last week, Johnson traveled from her home in Indianapolis to Fountain, this time to restore life into her son's old home. Now, weeks from signing her name to the deeds on the reclaimed house, Johnson is realizing a goal to keep her son's memory alive.
Woods was a giving kind of guy, and Johnson hopes the house will keep giving in his name - with the help of two veterans' groups, Team Rubicon and the local Chive chapter, Johnson plans to renovate the decrepit house and rent it to veterans and establish a scholarship fund with the extra money. She plans to charge minimal rent - just enough to cover taxes and insurance. While she returns home at the end this week, she plans to return to see her dream realized, she said.
But the house on Desert Circle has a long way to go.
When Woods bought the house years ago, he proudly told his mother he had bought a "little fixer-upper."
But when Johnson first saw the house, it needed more than just a little fixing up, she joked. The family converged on the house to make it livable for Woods and his wife before his first deployment in 2003. They painted it inside and out.
Johnson came to the house again in fall 2008, when Woods gave her the dog tags, and again in 2009, days after he died. Woods' wife, who didn't own the home, went home to Kentucky and left the house behind, hoping the bank would lock it up, Johnson said.
But without locks on the doors, the house had become unrecognizable when Johnson drove up to it this weekend. The refrigerator and dishwasher had been stolen, and in certain rooms the roof had collapsed. Animal feces and urine stains covered the floor.
Still, it was a sight that left Johnson speechless for joy.
"Oh, my God, there are no words," she said, fighting back tears. "And I'm not a woman short on words."
After one day of work at Desert Circle on Sunday, a crew of fewer than 20 volunteers filled a construction dumpster with the cut weeds and ripped-up, stained carpet.
The roof is rotting, nonexistent in places and on the verge of detaching from the house. But before anything can be done inside, the roof needs to be replaced, said Lisa Monk, a volunteer with Team Rubicon.
The team has a long list of needs it can't afford to pay for - in addition to a new roof, the house needs a water heater and inspections from an electrician and an HVAC company. The cleanup crew needs another dumpster and port-a-potties. Team Rubicon plans to start a gofundme.com campaign, hoping to get sufficient funds to get started, Monk said.
It's not the legacy that Johnson would have wished for - Woods died having left behind no children, she said.
"It'd have been nice to have a little Lee running around," she said.
Instead, the house has become a legacy of its own, and it will keep Johnson busy.
To Johnson's delight, not everything ripped from the house was refuse destined for the dumpster. Johnson happily donned a baseball cap that crews found in the home on Sunday.
After it was ripped up, a closet carpet also yielded one of Woods' dog tags. Johnson slipped it on her necklace of tags, where she can wear it over her heart.
"What I have gone through in the past six years I would not wish on my worst enemy," Johnson said. "It's been six years, and I still, to this day, can't believe he's gone."
Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0198