As a young Mormon missionary in the South American country of Chile, Dana Willis, Assistant Director for the Southern Arizona Public Affairs Council, remembers, “If someone had told me that someday I would be getting on an airplane and traveling half way around the world to go to work, I couldn’t have possibly imagined it.”
Now, nearly 40 years later, Lieutenant Colonel Willis (retired), is doing just that. Working as a foreign affairs specialist for the United States Air Force, Dana, a member of the Tucson East Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, travels thousands of miles to the other side of the world to meet with the people he loved to serve as a missionary, all the time holding down important positions at church in Tucson.
Service-minded and charitable, Dana leads a very busy life, both at and away from work. When he is at home in Tucson, his church positions keep him busy. Until a few years ago, he served as a bishop of his east-side Tucson ward responsible for the physical and spiritual well-being of more than 500 members of his congregation. Today, he has an equally demanding roll of working with community leaders throughout Southern Arizona.
While he has stayed very busy serving in Tucson, he has also been traveling to South America many times a year for his demanding job. For the last 15 years, first as an officer, and now as a civilian foreign affairs specialist, he helps train Air Forces throughout Latin America.
One of his exciting responsibilities is to participate in the world’s fourth largest air and trade show hosted by the Chilean Air Force. Visitors from 40 nations take part, and he helps the United States military at the embassy prepare for the arrival of U.S. aircraft, personnel, and distinguished visitors, helping everything run smoothly. A sidebar to this story is he is fortunate to work in an embassy staff with six other returned missionaries, three who served in Chile, all seven in Spanish speaking missions.
Dana explains, this year “there was never a dull moment,” as he made sure his boss talked to air force commanders from 15 different nations, and 6 aviation industry leaders, ensured the new U.S. ambassador got his picture taken sitting in an F-16, and juggled many other responsibilities. “The best way to describe the show,” he says, “is ‘organized chaos.’
He quickly points out his favorite moments of the show. “The single most rewarding experience is carrying out the community relations events, such as helping the medically challenged Make-A-Wish kids visit the aircraft and expositions and watching their eyes light up. It puts life back in focus real fast.”
But there is more to the story than the air show assignment. A large piece of Dana’s heart has belonged to the people of Chile since he arrived there as a missionary in 1975 and spent two years serving and loving the Chilean people. In 1999, he returned as a lieutenant colonel—the Air Force Section Chief in the U.S. Embassy in Santiago—and stayed for three more years. This latest position as a U.S. Air Force civilian employee allows him to regularly travel to visit with his long-time friends.
Dana has maintained contact with members of the LaDehesa Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for many years. Some he has watched grow up. He was a witness at one couple’s wedding. They now have three daughters, the oldest of whom is twelve.
Another couple now has five children. During Dana’s visit, the oldest daughter whispered to her mother “I want Tata (Grandpa) Willis to baptize me.” The following Saturday he was able to accept that honor.
The unique experiences of Brother Dana Willis in Chile over the years has bound his heart to the Chilean people in ways that he never imagined possible when he arrived there as a young missionary. When the Gospel brings people together, their bonds are not affected by time or distance.