An American fighting alongside Ukrainian forces was killed this week, CNN reported Thursday.
Willy Joseph Cancel, a 22-year-old U.S. Marine veteran and corrections officer from Tennessee, was working with a private military contracting company in Ukraine when he was killed on Monday, his family said.
Cancel is believed to have been the first U.S. citizen to die while fighting in Ukraine. He is survived by his wife and their 7-month-old son.
Cancel’s mother, Rebecca Cabrera, told CNN that he agreed to go to Ukraine in mid-March, several weeks after Russia’s invasion began. “He wanted to go over because he believed in what Ukraine was fighting for,” she said. “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.”
“He went there wanting to help people,” his wife, Brittany, told Fox News. “He had always felt that that was his main mission in life.
“My husband was very brave and a hero,” she added. “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’s body has not yet been recovered, his mother said. “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.”
The State Department is “aware of these reports and [is] closely monitoring the situation,” a spokesperson said.
“Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment,” the spokesperson 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.”
The Biden administration has repeatedly urged Americans not to travel to Ukraine amid the ongoing war, but many have done so anyway.
In March, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry said that as many as 20,000 foreigners from 52 countries had expressed their desire to join a special unit, the International Legion, in the fight against Russia.
According to the Washington Post, that includes an estimated 4,000 Americans.