Albany native reflects on his service as he prepares to lead the Veterans Day Parade

In 1953, the then 10-year-old Cub Scout Jim Willis marched in the Albany Veterans Day Parade with his father, World War II veteran Millard Willis, a local attorney.

On Nov. 11, Willis will again participate in the annual parade, this time as grand marshal, an honor he calls, “awesome.”

The honor is especially fitting for someone selected as Veteran of the Year in 2001 and 2004.

An Albany native, Willis, 70, retired in March as director of the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs.

Willis attended Albany Union High School, where he was active in wrestling, track and the international relations club.

He enlisted in the Air Force and graduated high school in 1961, serving eight years as a military policeman.

“My friend Ken Bancroft and I enlisted under what was called the Buddy Program,” Willis said with a smile. “But what they didn’t tell us is that only lasts for eight weeks. I didn’t talk to him again for 45 years. He made a career out of the Air Force and we’re still good friends.”

Willis served at bases in Texas, Mississippi, California, Hawaii and Oregon, plus spent 13 months at Phan Rang in South Vietnam.

“We did air base security, I was an armorer and we provided combat convoy escorts between air bases,” Willis said. “That wasn’t good, because the convoy can only travel as fast as the slowest vehicle. We were fired upon many times.”

His weapon of choice for that duty was an M60 machine gun.

Willis said he regularly attends reunions of the 366th Air Police Squadron, which attracts more than 300 veterans, some of them coming from as far away as Vietnam.

Willis earned numerous medals and ribbons during his time in service, including the Air Force Commendation medal, the Presidential Unit Citation, two Air Force Outstanding Unit medals, two Good Conduct medals and more.

After his military discharge, Willis became a deputy sheriff in Douglas County, working out of Roseburg. He spent 15 years in southern Oregon, rising to the rank of lieutenant.

He then became undersheriff in Washington County for two years before becoming head of leadership training at what is now the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. He was promoted to deputy director and then commander during his four years there.

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In 1993, Willis became bureau commander for the Oregon State Police in Salem, a job he held for 10 years until taking over as director of the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs in 2003.

He had planned to retire.

“I had been volunteering with veterans work for about 20 years at that time,” Willis said. “I was serving on an advisory committee for Gov. Kitzhaber. When the former director retired, I was asked to take over. My wife supported it, ‘because she didn’t think I should be home alone with power tools.’”

Willis said the job was a combination of “good, bad and ugly.”

The good was being able to “provide real help to veterans and their families who didn’t now how to access the benefits they needed and to which they were entitled. It truly can change the quality of their life for the rest of their life.”

The bad was when a veteran’s individual plan for a claim was rejected.

“It’s really hard news to deliver when you’re committed to advocating for them,” Willis said.

The ugly was dealing with the Legislature on budget issues.

“My job was my passion,” Willis said. “It was difficult to have to deal with some people who knew little or nothing about what they’re supposed to be doing.”

But overall, he emphasized, Oregonians care about veterans and show strong support for them.

Willis said he is especially proud that the state’s second veterans home is under construction in Lebanon, although he did his best to stay neutral on a site selection.

“There were five applicants and several were excellent,” Willis said. “I set up a committee and they set up a ratings matrix used on each site. I told them I did not want to hear anything until the rankings were all tallied. The home is going to be wonderful and it serves a veterans population of more than 100,000.”

Willis and his wife, Dee, live in Albany. She is a retired interior designer and they have two grown children.

He is an active member of the American Legion Post 10 and VFW 584 in Albany and the Vietnam Veterans of American 585 of Lebanon.

The couple enjoys traveling, but Willis said his real hobby is “helping veterans.”

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Alex Paul is the Linn County reporter for the Democrat-Herald. He can be contacted at 541-812-6114 or alex.paul@lee.net.