Willson served in the US Air Force from 1966 to 1970, including several months as a combat security officer in Vietnam. He left the Air Force as a Captain. He subsequently became a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Veterans For Peace (Humboldt Bay Chapter 56, California, later Portland, OR Chapter 72). Upon completion of Law School at American University in Washington, D.C., he became a member of the District of Columbia Bar. Willson has had a variety of jobs including penal consultant, prisoner rights advocate, dairy farmer, legislative aide, town tax assessor and building inspector, veteran's advocate, and small businessman.
He was prisoner rights aide to MassachusettsState Senator Jack Backman, served on Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis' homeless veterans and Agent Orange task forces, and worked with Massachusetts Lt. Governor John Kerry on Agent Orange and other veterans' issues, later becoming a volunteer for Kerry's first U.S. Senatorial campaign in 1984. After Kerry's victory, Willson was appointed to his veterans advisory committee.
Concord protest and injuries
On September 1, 1987, while engaged in a protest against the shipping of U.S. weapons to Central America in the context of the Contra wars, Willson and other members of a Veterans Peace Action Team blocked railroad tracks at the Concord, California Naval Weapons Station. An approaching train did not stop, and struck the veterans. Willson was hit, ultimately losing both legs below the knee while suffering a severe skull fracture with loss of his right frontal lobe. Subsequently, he discovered that he had been identified for more than a year as an FBI domestic "terrorist" suspect under President Reagan's anti-terrorist task force provisions and that the train crew that day had been advised not to stop the train. In 1989 a music benefit was held in San Francisco to help raise funds for Willson. Performers who turned out in support were Nick Gravenites with guests Jerry Garcia and Pete Sears, Jackson Browne played a set, and Ed Asner and Wavy Gravy spoke. Mimi Farina and Pete Sears later played a folk set for protesters just outside the barbed wire surrounding the naval base. They built the stage on some old railroad tracks using a generator for power. Their show was filmed by police from a tower just inside the base.
For years after the Willson incident, anti-war protesters maintained a 24-hour-a-day vigil at the weapons depot, which shipped between 60,000 and 120,000 tons of munitions each year to U.S. forces and allies, a Navy spokesman said.
Willson filed a lawsuit contending that the Navy and individual supervisors were given ample warning of their plan to block the tracks, and that the train crew had time to stop—which the subsequent official Navy report confirmed. The train crew filed a lawsuit against Willson, requesting punitive damages for the "humiliation, mental anguish, and physical stress" they suffered as a result of the incident, which was dismissed. U.S. District Judge Robert Peckham said Willson did not plan to cause the railroad workers any distress, because he assumed the train would stop before hitting him.
Willson later agreed to settle his lawsuit against the government and train crew for $920,000. He now walks with prostheses.
Willson helped create Veterans Education Project (VEP) in Massachusetts; Vietnam Veterans Peace Education Network (VVPEN) in New England; National Federation of Veterans For Peace (NFVFP) in 1986 in Washington, DC; Veterans Fast For Life (VFFL) in 1986 on steps of the US Capitol, a water-only fast that concluded after 47 days, which led to the four fasters being placed on a domestic "terrorist" watch list; Veterans Peace Action Teams (VPAT) in 1987, training and sending observation and work teams into Nicaragua and El Salvador, a project that lasted 3 years; Nuremberg Actions at Concord, CA in 1987; Institute For the Practice of Nonviolence in 1988 in San Francisco; and The People's Fast For Justice and Peace in the Americas, a 42-day water fast on the steps of the US Capitol in 1992. Willson was an early member of Veterans for Peace.
Writing and film-making
While working for Massachusetts Senator Jack Backman, he investigated brutality at Walpole State Prison for more than a year, concluding in an official report that Walpole revealed "An Exercise In Torture."
His first book, an autobiography, On Third World Legs (Chicago: Kerr) was published in 1992. He is Executive Producer of Santa Cruz Film Foundation, currently working on a documentary about the history of U.S. intervention in Korea that directly led to the Korean War, which he considers "one of the remaining unresolved international crimes of the Twentieth Century."
In 2011, his book Blood on the Tracks was published.
He has been a member of a local community Post Oil Action Group, Humboldt Electric Vehicle Association, and his city's Nuclear Free Zone and Peace Commission. He considers himself a pacifist. In addition to possessing a Juris Doctor, he holds two honorary degrees (LL.D. and Ph.D.).