Interview with Gold Star Mother Becky Johnson
–by Kristen Tsetsi
“A few months ago,” says Becky L. Johnson, “I was contacted by an agent with the FBI out of New York. He explained that he wanted to let me know before it hit the media that they, along with the help of the Canadian Mounties, have arrested a man who was involved in killing my son.”
Becky’s son, Gary Lee Woods, Jr., “Lee,” didn’t tell his mother he was joining the Army. He just joined. But she wasn’t surprised by his decision.
“He was in JROTC when he was in school. He loved it. He attended ‘mini boot camp’ over the summer with the JROTC class at Camp Atterbury. He always loved a good challenge, so this, of course, was right up his alley.”
There was a little bit more to his decision. The failing economy had forced two companies to lay Lee off, and he was looking for career opportunities and stability.
When Lee, 18, approached his mother to tell her he’d joined the military, she gasped, she says, but Lee didn’t give her a chance to speak. Her son, who as a young boy had been featured on the five o’clock news because he could “tuck” his ears – “He would take his ears and fold them up and ‘tuck’ them, top and bottom of his ear, into the hole of his ear,” his mother says – had it all figured out.
Becky recalls his explanation to her: “He said, ‘Wait, Mom. Let me finish. I graduated from high school and since have had two jobs. Both had to lay me off. The Army won’t lay me off. I’ll get to see the world. AND they’ll pay for me to go to college. I can retire from the Army at the age of 39. I can then get another job and work for 20 more years. At the age of 59 I can be retired and drawing two pensions. You always told me to think about the future. Well, I’m thinking about the future.’”
Becky told him it wasn’t the right time to join the Army. Our country was at war. But Lee countered by asking, “When is a good time to join the Army?”
“I found it very hard to argue with a young man who had so carefully thought out his entire speech to me,” Becky says. “So I proudly hugged him and told him that I would always stand behind him. And to this day, I stand behind him.”
LIFT: What was Lee like as a young boy, and then as a teenager?
BECKY: My son was a very inquisitive little boy. He took his toys apart to see how they worked. He was about seven when, one day, my toaster quit working. (I was a single mom at the time.) He said, “Mom, don’t worry. I think I can fix that for you!” I looked at him – proudly – and told him that it was okay, we needed a new one, anyway.
He taught himself how to play the piano at around seven or eight. I’d bought him a battery operated keyboard, and I would buy the kids the “Disney Sing Along Songs” videos. He taught his sister, who was three or four, to work the VCR. I heard them in the living room watching their video and he was playing this song on his piano, just a couple notes at a time, and he would tell his sister, “Stop – Rewind – Stop – Play.” Before I knew it, he was playing the whole song!
He was in band through the 10th grade, and then he switched to choir and sang a solo in a performance his first year! I remember sitting there with my mouth open in amazement and tears rolling down my cheeks.
Afterward, I hugged him and said, ”Why didn’t you tell me you were doing a solo?” He said, “I wanted to surprise you!” He was such a fun-loving child right up till the day he died. He even taught his younger stepbrothers and some other neighborhood kids how to climb a tree in our yard when he was home visiting after his 1st deployment.
LIFT: What was Lee like as a soldier?
BECKY: Soldiers who served under him have told me stories about what a great Staff Sergeant my son was. He would call them into his office if they were having problems that affected their job performance and pull his rank patch off of his uniform and lay it on his desk and say to them, “Now you’re talking to Lee Woods, not SSG Woods. So, tell me honestly what’s going on.”
If he could not give them answers, he would keep looking for the answer until he could help them, whether it was a personal problem or a military problem.
SSG Gary Lee Woods was 24 when he was killed on April 10, 2009 in Mosul. He was in the last of five Humvees out on a mission when they came upon a dump truck that had barreled through a checkpoint, his mother says.
“The truck was fired upon by many Iraqi police and the first four vehicles in the convoy,” Becky says. “Lee was able to get his vehicle into position for his gunner to shoot and kill the driver of the truck, but sadly not before the driver was able to detonate the 10,000 pounds of explosives that he carried in the back.”
LIFT: How were you notified?
BECKY: My daughter-in-law called me to tell me of his death. I dropped to my knees screaming NO when she told me. Not long after receiving her call, I was served my “official” notification from two men serving in the Army.
I remember telling my husband (Lee’s step dad) that I did not want those men in the green suits to come to our house. When they arrived, he told them that I already knew and did not want to see them. They apologized and politely told him that they had to do it; it was protocol.
When they came into the house, I was curled up into a fetal position. I thought that if I didn’t look at them, they wouldn’t be there. When they asked me if I was Becky L. Johnson, I told them no. My husband, who was standing behind me, just nodded ‘yes’ to them. When they asked me if I was the mother of SSG Gary Lee Woods Jr., again, I told them no. Again, my husband nodded ‘yes.’
This man knelt down in front of me and so very politely reached for my hand and started into “Ma’am, on behalf of the President of the United States, and on behalf of a grateful nation…”
I went numb – blank. There were a lot of people (family members) in my house, but I really don’t remember who. I heard Katie Couric announce on TV that five U.S. soldiers had been killed in Mosul, Iraq by a suicide bomber carrying 10,000 pounds of explosives. As soon as she said the words “five U.S. soldiers,” I told everyone to hush – Katie was talking about Lee. I watched as she spoke of the incident, and as soon as she turned to the next topic I went back into my own world.
LIFT: Was Lee’s death something you had thought you would be at least somewhat prepared for as the parent of someone in the military?
BECKY: No. No parent is never prepared to hear that their child has died. Did I know that he was in a dangerous place? Yes. But he had been to Iraq twice already, and he had come home twice already. He was on his third deployment and had been there six months without doing a single mission. He kept volunteering for them, but his 1st Sgt kept telling him no.
But this particular mission was short handed, so my son again volunteered. This time, the 1st Sgt said okay. I had thought my son was “safely” tucked away on the FOB doing his job, not out on a mission.
LIFT: (It’s important that it be understood that this question is asked for the benefit of those who would ask it, themselves; it is in no way meant to be offensive or cruel, and this was explained to Ms. Johnson) People die every day for any number of reasons. What is it that makes the Gold Star Mothers unique, and why is it important to you that people know your story?
BECKY: My son died 6,283 miles away from me. I was notified on April 10th, and on April 11th, I flew to Dover to witness his Dignified Transfer. On April 12th, my son and the four soldiers who died with him were flown back into the United States, and with the families of the other four soldiers, I stood on the tarmac while they took the transfer cases wrapped in the flag out of the plane and carefully placed them into the back of the vehicle that would take them to the coroner for autopsies.
On April 17th I was at Fort Knox, Kentucky to watch SSG Dennis Daugherty escort my son from Dover to his hometown of Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The viewing was on April 18th, and the full honors Military funeral service was on April 19th.
On May 14th, I attended a Memorial service at Fort Carson for the five soldiers killed. On May 27, 2010, I attended a Memorial service at Fort Carson where they unveiled the Fallen Soldier Rock with the name of my son engraved into it.
When your child dies in service to his country, it is not the normal death of a child. “Gold Star Mother” is a title none of us ever wanted, but one that comes with so much pride for a child who gave his life for so many.
In the near future, Becky says, she could face the man responsible for killing her son and four other soldiers.
“Not many parents whose child is killed on foreign soil get this opportunity,” she says. “I will be attending the trial of this man, and I’ve been told I will be able to speak at the sentencing phase of his trial.”
LIFT: What will you say to him?
BECKY: I want to ask the judge to sentence this man to life in prison with no chance of parole behind the bars of the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons, ADX Florence, so that he will have plenty of time to think about what he has done to the lives of the five US soldiers and the five families involved.
Becky created the private, invite-only Facebook page, Gold Star Parents Brigade, for parents who have lost children to military efforts.
She also created the public Facebook group, In Memory of SSG Gary Lee Woods Jr. .
“This, to me, is what it takes to create a memory,” Becky says of her son’s tribute page. “I can only hope that one day someone will see a photo of him and say, ‘I heard about him!’ I want my son’s memory kept alive. I want this country to see the faces of those who gave all to protect their rights. These soldiers sacrificed all for us. And their families continue to sacrifice every day through their grief.”