A few days after Christmas 2003, William Willis received some startling news: In 24 hours his U.S. Marine Corps unit would be deploying overseas. The then-25-year-old Willis packed up his belongings and prepared to leave Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he had been stationed since 1997. A day later he found himself in the middle of a massive American military buildup in Kuwait.
Willis, who grew up in Lansing, spent the next several weeks training with the elite 1st Force Reconnissance Company under the hot Arabian sun. Then in the early morning hours of March 20, Willis and five other Marines drove two Humvees deep into Iraq, leading the opening salvo of the war.
Willis, who joked that his six-man unit was “a jack of all trades and the master of none,” spent the next several months darting around Iraq in a pair of Humvees scouting, target-spotting and providing reconnaissance support for the invading American forces.
While Willis seems remarkably modest about his extensive experiecne, a fact that other Marines say they admire in him, fellow Marine Option ROTC Cadet Nicole Childs, who trains with Willis regularly, spoke bluntly about his achievements in the Marine Corps and what his Force Reconnaissance job in Iraq entailed.
“Before the main body of troops moves into an area they send a couple Rambo-type guys ahead to scout out the situation,” Childs said. “It is really physically demanding and you have to be stealthy as hell, but that is what he did.”
Willis’s position in Force Reconnaissance, which is considered one of the most elite postings in the Marine Corps, required him to attend Marine Dive School, which is similar to the training Navy Seals undergo.
After returning from Iraq, Willis, who is an expert urban sniper, won a place in the Marine Enlisted Commissioning Education Program, allowing him to earn his first bachelors degree and become a commissioned officer. Last year, while taking over 18 credits a semester towards his Arabic Armenian, Persian and Turkish studies major, and waking up before 6 a.m. most days for training, Willis managed to graduate first in his class of 239 from the Officer Candidate School.
Today, the lean 29-year old gunnery sargeant, who once stayed in one of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s palaces, lives in the University’s Northwood V apartment complex with his wife Amber and his two children, Isabelle and Ian.
Willis said he never really wanted to go into the military as a child, but he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1994 after graduating from Lansing Waverly High School even though he was accepted to Michigan State University.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to study in college,” he said. “And I didn’t have the money to spend a lot of time studying something that I didn’t know I wanted to get a degree in.”
But today Willis, anticipating a return to Iraq after he graduates next December, studies his Arabic and Farsi diligently. He believes that one day those language skills might save his life.
Childs, who said she transferred from the Navy ROTC to the Marine ROTC because of the example Willis set, said she feels fortunate to have someone with the abilities and personality of Willis in the program.
“I get to train with one of the best Marines out there every single day,” she said.
Asked about his thoughts about the deteriorating situation in Iraq, Willis, who served two tours of duty in Kosovo and spent time guarding former President Bill Clinton at Camp David, replied bluntly.
“Of course, I support our troops and the conflict,” Willis said. “I know that I will eventually go back.”