22-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran Willy Joseph Cancel was killed while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces on Monday, his family told CNN late Thursday night.
It was not immediately clear how Cancel was killed. His mother Rebecca Cabrera said the group he was fighting alongside has not been able to locate his body.
“They haven’t found his body,” Cabrera told CNN. “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.”
Cancel leaves behind a wife and seven-month-old baby.
“My husband was very brave and a hero,” wife Brittany Cancel told Fox News. “I did not expect to be a widow at 23 years old or for our son to be without a father. All I want is for him to come home, and to give him the proper burial he deserves.”
Cancel had been working as a corrections officer in Tennessee after leaving the Marines. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Cancel then answered the call of a private military contractor who was looking for people to sign up to fight against Russia in 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,” Cabrera told CNN.
When asked about his death, a U.S. State Department official told CNN they are “aware of these reports and are closely monitoring the situation.”
“Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment,” the State Deartment official added. “We once again reiterate US citizens should not travel to Ukraine due to the active armed conflict and the singling out of US citizens in Ukraine by Russian government security officials, and that US citizens in Ukraine should depart immediately if it is safe to do so, using any commercial or other privately available ground transportation options.”
If reports of Cancel’s death are accurate, he would be the first U.S. citizen known to have been killed while fighting in Ukraine since the Russian invasion began.
Cancel’s brother-in-law Devin Tietze Jr. told CNN that Cancel was the “type to fight for what’s right regardless of the outcome,”
“He believed wholeheartedly this shouldn’t have happened and he wanted to go help the people in Ukraine,” Tietze said.
Cabrera said “It was something that he believed in his heart, that was the right thing. He was the type of man who always stepped up when everybody else stepped back, and there were a lot of men who were like that that were with him.”
Ukrainian-American Serge Zevlever may have been the first U.S. citizen killed since the invasion began. He died while helping Ukrainian refugees. The Associated Press reported Zevlever split his time between St. Louis, Missouri and Ukraine, where he worked with an adoption agency. WPSD reported he emigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s and served in the U.S. military in Operation Desert Storm.
Journalist and filmmaker Brent Renaud was another U.S. citizen killed in Ukraine. He was reportedly hit by gunfire from Russian forces while documenting the war. Two members of U.S.-based Fox News, Irish-born Pierre Zakrewski and Ukrainian-born Oleksandra Kuvshynova, were also killed a day later while documenting the war.
A second American was killed in an artillery strike in Chernihiv just days after Renaud. He was later identified as Minnesota native James Hill, who was seeking medical treatment for his Ukrainian wife at the time.