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Kirtland Air Force Base airman dies in Qatar

Kirtland Air Force Base (Joe Mabel/WikiCommons)

An airman assigned to posts in Kirtland Air Force Base and New Mexico for nearly 20 years died in a non-combat-related incident Saturday in Qatar while commanding an engineering squadron in the fight against the Islamic State group, the Department of Defense announced.

Lt. Col. James Willis, 55, the commander of the 210th Red Horse Squadron, New Mexico Air National Guard, died at Al Udeid Air Base. The incident is under investigation, and the DOD didn’t provide any additional details about his death.

Willis’ first assignment at KAFB was in 2002, and he has completed a variety of assignments in New Mexico, including 10 years on a HAZMAT team for the New Mexico National Guard.

Since 2018, he has commanded a Red Horse squadron — Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers. Those are civil engineering teams that carry out assignments like rapid damage assessment, heavy damage repairs and the construction of airfields, runways and expedient structures.

The DOD said Willis’ squadron was supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, which is the effort aimed at defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The squadron of about 80 people deployed on April 26, according to the Air Force website. Joseph Vigil, a spokesman for the New Mexico National Guard, said the squadron will return home in October.

“The New Mexico National Guard is saddened by the loss of Lt. Col. James Willis,” he said in an email. “Our heartfelt condolences go out to his family and friends. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time.”

Willis had seven assignments in New Mexico, most of which were at KAFB, according to his Air Force biography. His longest assignment was from 2004 to 2014 as a science officer in the New Mexico National Guard’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team — a HAZMAT team that responds to chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear incidents.

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