A former United States Marine has been killed fighting alongside Ukrainian forces in the war with Russia, his relatives told news outlets, in the first known death of a US citizen fighting Russian forces in Ukraine.
Rebecca Cabrera told CNN her son, Willy Joseph Cancel, 22, was killed on Monday while working for a private military contracting company that sent him to Ukraine.
Cabrera said her son had been working as a corrections officer in Tennessee and had signed up to work with the private military contractor shortly before the fighting began in Ukraine in late February. She told CNN he agreed to go to Ukraine.
“He wanted to go over because he believed in what Ukraine was fighting for, and he wanted to be a part of it to contain it there so it didn’t come here, and that maybe our American soldiers wouldn’t have to be involved in it,” she said.
When the war began, Ukraine formed fighting groups of foreign volunteers composed of military veterans to supplement its regular forces. Thousands signed up and travelled to Ukraine via neighbouring countries like Poland.
Many were quickly thrown into the defence of Kyiv, according to a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
Cabrera said her son’s body has not been found.
“They haven’t found his body,” she said. “They are trying, the men that were with him, but it was either grab his body or get killed, but we would love for him to come back to us.”
She said her son flew to Poland on March 12 and entered Ukraine shortly after. She said he was fighting alongside men from a number of countries.
Cancel’s widow, Brittany Cancel, told Fox News he leaves behind a young son and that she sees her husband as a hero.
“My husband did die in Ukraine,” Brittany Cancel said. “He went there wanting to help people, he had always felt that that was his main mission in life.”
She said her husband volunteered to go to Ukraine and had aspirations of becoming a police officer or firefighter.
“He had dreams and aspirations of being a police officer or joining FDNY,” she told Fox. “Naturally, when he found out about what was happening in Ukraine he was eager to volunteer.”
Cancel had served as a volunteer firefighter in New York, according to an online fundraising page set up by a man identifying himself as his father.
Cancel graduated from Newburgh Free Academy in New York in 2017, the school district said. He participated in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps while in high school.
While in the Marines, Cancel served as a rifleman and was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He was discharged for bad conduct after violating a standing order, a Marine Corps spokesperson told The Associated Press.
Cancel worked at a private prison in Tennessee from May 2021 until January, according to a spokesman for the private prison company CoreCivic.
The US government has not confirmed the reports of Cancel’s death. A State Department official said it was aware of the reports and was “closely monitoring the situation”.
The State Department is warning Americans not travel to Ukraine due to the active armed conflict and the singling out of US citizens in Ukraine by Russian government security officials.
State has advised US citizens to “depart Ukraine immediately if it is safe to do so using any commercial or other privately available ground transportation options,” the official said.
“Our hearts go out to his family and loved ones,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday. “Sounds like a very passionate young man.”
US citizens should look for other ways to help Ukrainians rather than travelling to “an active war zone”, Psaki said.