WASHINGTON — An American citizen and former Marine, Willy Joseph Cancel, has died in Ukraine while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces, according to the man's family. It is the first known death of a U.S. citizen fighting in Ukraine.
Cancel's mother, Rebecca Cabrera, told CNN the 22-year-old was killed Monday in Ukraine. She told the news outlet that her son was working with a private military contracting company and arrived in Ukraine in mid-March.
“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.”
His widow, Brittany Cancel, said in a statement to ABC News and Fox News that her husband "was eager to volunteer" when he found out about what was happening in Ukraine and 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.”
Before going to Ukraine, he was working as a corrections officer in Kentucky and had dreams of becoming a police officer or joining the New York City Fire Department, she added.
The couple also have a 7-month-old son.
A GoFundMe set up to support Cancel's wife and son has raised more than $10,000, as of early Friday afternoon.
Cancel graduated from Newburgh Free Academy in New York in 2017, the school district said. He participated in the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps while in high school.
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.
A State Department official told multiple media outlets they are "aware of these reports and are closely monitoring the situation."
"Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment," the official added in a statement. "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."
At least three other American citizens have been killed in the conflict so far including filmmaker Brent Renaud, Ukrainian-American Serge Zevlever and Minnesota native James “Jimmy” Hill.