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Local Man Receives Military Honour for Work with NORAD

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Lt Col Willis Crop
Lieutenant-Colonel Nathan J. Willis.

Lieutenant-Colonel Nathan J. Willis, an American military officer who lives in Ste. Agathe, was recently awarded special recognition for his work in the area of adapting operations for the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) to function during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many will recognize the term NORAD for their prominent defence operations during the Cold War, as well as for their radar simulation tracking Santa’s flight across the world each Christmas Eve.

For Willis, the highlight of working at NORAD is the special working relationship it exemplifies between Canada and the United States. Specifically, his job is with the United States Air Force, and in that capacity he works with the Canadian Forces base in Winnipeg to conduct aerospace warning, aerospace control, and maritime warning in the defence of North America.

“My office is a true example of a bi-national office,” says Willis. “We are privileged to act as a bi-national command between Canada and the U.S. During the Cold War, the main concern was attack from the Soviet Union. We’ve kind of kept that mission of North American defence to this day. And we really zero in on aerospace warning. We use all levels of radar technology and different sensors to not only see what is coming in from outside North America, but also what is at play inside our borders, which is a lesson we learned after 9/11.”

In terms of aerospace control, he says his office is responsible for the alert fighters that stand watch throughout Canada and the U.S.

“We also cover the maritime warnings and we cover Alaska,” he adds. “When you look at Alaska, and other bases within the continental U.S., there are Canadians stationed there as well. It’s very seamless in the day to day. I may be working next to an American or a Canadian at any point, so it’s a very unified approach created by our two countries.”

Willis and the military units at NORAD are responsible to ensure that dedicated fighter planes are ready to protect our countries 24/7, but personnel are also prepared to conduct a variety of other types of operations, including air force support and search-and-rescue.

“We are the ones looking at the radars and making sure everything we see on radar is allowed to be there,” says Willis. “And if there is anything suspicious, we execute procedures that we have in place to see what is at play. In Winnipeg, we just had F-18s coming back from Romania, and we oversee that they are landed, received, and maintained.”

Willis’s career as an air battle manager has involved five years of air traffic control and seven years of flying in an aircraft called an E-8 JSTARS. Though currently not a tactical operator, he is instrumental in coordinating and developing plans and projects with NORAD missions and its headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The COVID Factor

When COVID-19 arrived in North America, Willis focused on risk analysis and developing mitigation strategies to ensure that operations weren’t interrupted.

“When we realized that COVID was going to be a pretty big deal, we created a working group tasked with overseeing different aspects of Canadian Air Force operations, to see that they were supported to continue the NORAD mission,” he says. “Our group worked together with all units to build plans to make sure things were sanitized. We modified schedules to make sure personnel were able to come in in shifts to maintain distancing. Any measure of personnel scheduling and procedure-wise, we used that working group as a conduit to streamline procedures for all units. As the pandemic was a new type of threat, it was important to have kind of a clearinghouse for best practices.”

In a virtual ceremony last year—on Friday, November 20—Willis received special recognition for his role in aerospace defence during the pandemic. At that ceremony, he was given a commemorative art piece.

Virtual ceremonies are nothing new for many military bases, especially NORAD, given how widely their stations are separated geographically.

The video conferencing may not be a new wrinkle, but COVID does mean that things take longer than normal, says Willis.

“Professionally, it means we’re not bringing in people full-time,” he explains. “We’re tele-working and bringing in people on more spread-out scheduling. But due to the nature of the work, we just can’t bring it all home. We’re learning it takes longer to get things done. There’s just so many hours in the day.”

Life in Ste. Agathe

In June 2020, Willis and his wife made the move from Winnipeg to Ste. Agathe with their nine children.

“We lived in Winnipeg for a few years, and then we just moved down here this summer and it’s been a great experience,” Willis says. “The neighbours and people were spectacular. We met a lot of them and our kids started making friends. Now, with the limited social stuff we’ve been able to do, everybody’s been feeling a little more isolated,” says Willis. “In summer, the kids could play outside and they saw a lot of the kids across the street. They played together a lot. Lately, though, the neighbours helped us out with a couple of snowfalls and helped clear our driveway. But it does get kind of tough.”

According to Willis, American soldiers stationed with NORAD typically relocate to Canada for up to four years, bringing their families with them.

“We really feel like we relocate completely,” says Willis. “We bring our families. Our kids go to the local schools. I know some spouses work in the community… If you look at some other U.S. bases, they really are segregated on a base. But here, we have the benefit of being involved in an amazing community.”

Because of the proximity of the border, in previous years the family enjoyed the convenience of driving to Grand Forks to visit familiar stores and restaurants. Those excursions are out of the question now.

According to Willis, another hurdle they faced when the border closed was scrutiny from Canadians who didn’t understand why Americans like them were still here.

“Because we all have U.S. plates, people were thinking we were breaking the law by being up here,” says Willis. “That’s one thing I wish people would know a bit more about for us military personnel. Yes, our plates are yellow, so they’re noticeably different. Golden yellow plates mean New York. We’re here, we’re allowed to be here, and we’re working to keep us all safe.”

Acclimating to Canada

The family’s children range in ages from two to 16, and while Willis and his wife are from New York, the family initially moved here from Georgia.

“When we first came here, we came in T-shirts and flipflops at the airport straight into about -20 Celsius,” he says. “For the kids, it was a bit of a shock and some of them miss the heat from Georgia. But going out regularly for recess at school helped them get used to it.”

The kids also miss other things about living in the south, like going out for chicken sandwiches at Chick-fil-A.

On the flip side, a major highlight of being in Canada, aside from the welcoming nature from everyone, are all the wide-open spaces.

“I’m a runner, and the countryside is just beautiful,” says Willis. “Running through the city is fine and has its own set of challenges, but the country is definitely a big plus for me… but I guess about -10 Celsius would be my limit for running outside.”

The hardest thing to get used to? Using the metric system.

“That’s been a bit of a learning curve. When you drive from the States and then you see the 100-kilometres sign on the highway coming up… well, let’s just say 100 miles an hour is not 100 kilometres an hour. You have to relearn a few things in your brain, and fast. My wife helps me.”

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