A 22-year-old former US Marine was killed along with Ukrainian troops in the war with Russia, his relatives told news media in what is the first known death of a US civilian fighting in Ukraine.
Willy Joseph Cancel was murdered Monday while working for a military contractor that sent him to Ukraine, his mother, Rebecca Cabrera, told CNN. Cancel had recently served as a Tennessee District Attorney and had previously served in the Marines from 2017-21, enlisting the same year he graduated from high school.
Cabrera said her son signed up to work with the private military contractor shortly before the fighting in Ukraine began on Feb. 24. She told CNN that he agreed to go to Ukraine.
“He wanted to go there because he believed in what Ukraine was fighting for, and he wanted to be a part of it to contain it there so it wouldn’t come here, and maybe our American soldiers wouldn’t have to get involved. in it,” she said.
Cabrera said her son’s body has not been found.
“They didn’t find his body,” she said. “They’re trying, the men who were with him, but it was either grabbing his body or getting killed, but we’d like him to come back to us.”
She said her son flew to Poland on March 12 and entered Ukraine shortly after. She said he fought alongside men from different 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 who identified himself as his father. His wife was called on Tuesday to notify her of his death, the page said. The father wrote that Cancel made the decision to go to Ukraine in early March because he wanted to defend innocent people.
Cancel graduated from Newburgh Free Academy in New York in 2017, according to the school district.
Cancel worked in a private prison in Tennessee from May 2021 to January, said Matthew Davio, a spokesperson for the private prison company CoreCivic. The Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, a medium security facility, is located about an hour northeast of Nashville.
“As a correctional officer, Mr. Cancel served his state and his community by helping to maintain a safe, secure environment for inmates to participate in life-changing return programs. We are grateful for his services and saddened by his loss,” Davio said in a statement.
While in the Marines, Cancel served as a gunner and was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He was fired for bad behavior after he was convicted of violating a lawful general order, said Marine Corps Major Jim Stenger.
He had no deployment in a war zone, Stenger said. No other details about the misconduct conviction were provided.
The US has not confirmed reports of Cancel’s death. The State Department said on Friday it was aware of the reports and “closely monitoring the situation”, but could not comment further “due to privacy concerns”.
“We reiterate once again that US citizens are not allowed to travel to Ukraine due to the active armed conflict and the pickling of US citizens in Ukraine by Russian government security officials, and that US citizens in Ukraine should leave immediately if it is safe to do so with using all commercial or other privately available land transportation options,” the State Department said.
Cancel’s widow, Brittany Cancel, told Fox News that he is leaving behind a young son and that she sees her husband as a hero.
“My husband died in Ukraine,” said Brittany Cancel. “He went there to help people. He had always felt that was his most important mission in life.”
She said that her husband wanted to go to Ukraine voluntarily, but also had the ambition to become a police officer or firefighter.
“He had dreams and aspirations to become a police officer or join FDNY,” she told Fox. “Obviously, when he heard what was happening in Ukraine, he wanted to volunteer.”
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians were said to have died in the war. Other US non-combatants have been killed, including a documentary filmmaker who was killed when his vehicle came under fire at a checkpoint and a man was killed while waiting in line†
Drew reported from Durham, North Carolina. Contributors included AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington and Associated Press writers Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia; Allen G. Breed in Hubert, North Carolina; Kristin Hall in Murray, Kentucky; Karen Matthews in New York; and Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Kentucky.