WASHINGTON (AP) — A 22-year-old former U.S. Marine was killed alongside Ukrainian forces in the war with Russia, his relatives told news outlets in what’s the first known death of an American citizen fighting in Ukraine.
Willy Joseph Cancel was killed Monday while working for a military contracting company that sent him to Ukraine, his mother, Rebecca Cabrera, told CNN. Cancel had recently worked as a corrections officer in Tennessee and had previously served in the Marines from 2017-21, joining the service the same year he graduated from high school.
Cabrera said her son had signed up to work with the private military contractor shortly before fighting began in Ukraine on Feb. 24. 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.
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 had also served as a volunteer firefighter in New York and leaves behind a 7-month-old son, according to an online fundraising page set up by a man identifying himself as his father. His wife received the call informing her of his death on Tuesday, the page said. The father wrote that Cancel made the decision in early March to go to Ukraine because he wanted to defend innocent people.
Cancel graduated from Newburgh Free Academy in New York in 2017, the school district said.
Cancel worked at a private prison in Tennessee from May 2021 until January, said Matthew Davio, a spokesman for the private prison company CoreCivic. The Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, a medium security facility, is about an hour northeast of Nashville.
“As a correctional officer, Mr. Cancel served his state and his community by helping maintain a safe, secure environment where inmates can participate in life-changing reentry programs. We are grateful for his service and saddened by his loss,” Davio said in a statement.
While in the Marines, Cancel served as a rifleman and was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He was given a bad conduct discharge after he was convicted of violating a lawful general order, Marine Corps spokesperson Maj. Jim Stenger said.
He had no war zone deployments, Stenger said. No other details on the bad conduct conviction were provided.
The U.S. has not confirmed the reports of Cancel’s death. On Friday, the State Department said it was aware of the reports and is “closely monitoring the situation” but could not comment further “due to privacy considerations.”
“We once again reiterate U.S. citizens should not travel to Ukraine due to the active armed conflict and the singling out of U.S. citizens in Ukraine by Russian government security officials, and that U.S. citizens in Ukraine should depart immediately if it is safe to do so using any commercial or other privately available ground transportation options,” the State Department said.
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 but also 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.”
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians are believed to have died in the war. Other noncombatants from the U.S. have been killed, including a documentary filmmaker killed when his vehicle came under fire at a checkpoint and a man killed while he was waiting in a bread line.
AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed.