A 22-year-old former U.S. Marine has become the first American citizen to be killed fighting in the war in Ukraine, leaving behind a young widow and a 7-month-old son.
Willy Joseph Cancel, who’d been working as a corrections officer in Tennessee, traveled to Ukraine last month with a private security firm, according to CNN, which was the first to report his death.
Cancel had signed up with the private military contractor shortly before the war broke out and volunteered when he heard the company was looking for people to travel to Ukraine. The name of the company was not reported, but Cancel was being paid for his work.
“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,” Cancel’s mother, Rachel Cabrera, told CNN.
Cancel’s widow, Brittany Cancel, spoke to Fox News on Friday, saying her husband wanted to go to Ukraine to “help people.”
“My husband did die in Ukraine. He went there wanting to help people, he had always felt that that was his main mission in life.” She added that “he had dreams and aspirations of being a police officer or joining FDNY. Naturally when he found out about what was happening in Ukraine, he was eager to volunteer.”
Cancel flew to Poland on March 12, more than two weeks after the war began. He crossed the border into Ukraine within 24 hours of his arrival with a group of soldiers from several different countries.
The circumstances of Cancel’s death remain unclear, including how or where he was killed, but his body has not yet been recovered, his family confirmed.
“They haven’t found his body,” Cabrera 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.”
Cancel described her husband as “brave and a hero,” adding, “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.”
The State Department said it was “aware of these reports and are closely monitoring the situation,” but added, “due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”
The statement added: “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.”
Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.