A former Marine infantryman who left Kentucky to defend Ukraine in March was killed this week while fighting alongside the Ukrainian military, according to his uncle. He is considered the first American killed in combat.
Willy Joseph Cancel Jr., 22, lived in Kentucky and worked as a correctional officer before his death, Uncle Christopher Cancel said in an interview Friday.
The uncle said someone who had fought alongside young Mr Cancel called his father and told him he had left for a night patrol on April 24 and his unit had been overrun by troops Russians, maybe the next day. The uncle said the caller indicated that his body had not yet been found.
A fundraising page created by the family says Willy Joseph Cancel Jr.’s wife also received a call on Tuesday. “Your husband fought bravely, but unfortunately he did not survive,” the caller said, according to the account written by his father. He did not specify who made the call.
“Our whole family is simply distraught and we don’t know how to continue,” the post read.
A Ukrainian Defense Ministry official said on Friday that three foreigners – an American, a Briton and a Dane – had been killed fighting for the Ukrainian army’s International Legion. The manager did not provide their names for the record and asked not to be identified as he was not authorized to speak about them publicly. All foreigners fighting for this branch of the military are effectively part of the Ukrainian military as they receive government salaries and are required to sign contracts.
Mr. Cancel’s mother, Rebecca Cabrera, told CNN he worked with a private military contracting company, but on Friday his uncle said the family did not know the name of the company and did not had been contacted by any contractor after his death.
According to the Marine Corps, Willy Joseph Cancel Jr. spent nearly four years in the Marine Corps and was discharged for misconduct, leaving service as a private in November after serving time in prison for an offense undisclosed criminal.
The State Department said Friday it was aware of reports of Mr. Cancel’s death and would provide consular assistance to his family. “Out of respect for the family at this very difficult time, we have nothing further to announce,” said Jalina Porter, spokeswoman for the department. “We also want to reiterate that U.S. citizens should not travel to Ukraine during this active armed conflict.”
“This is a very dangerous situation,” she added, saying that American citizens in Ukraine were being targeted by Russian government security officials, and that “American citizens in Ukraine should leave immediately, whether it is safe to do so using commercial or private means”. ground transportation options available.
Since the February 24 invasion of Russia, an unknown number of Americans have volunteered to help Ukraine in various ways, including hundreds of military veterans seeking to join combatants on the ground. Ukrainian officials say thousands of foreign volunteers have joined the ranks of its army, but the actual number is hard to track.
Two other American veterans involved in the fighting in Ukraine were injured this week, according to the family of one of them.
Paul K. Gray, 42, of Tyler, Texas, and Manus E. McCaffery, 20, of Parma, Ohio, who had both served in the U.S. military, were injured on Wednesday when a Russian artillery shell touched their fighting stance, according to Mr. Gray’s mother, Jan Gray.
The two were waiting to ambush a Russian tank when shrapnel hit Mr McCaffery in the face and collapsed a concrete block wall on Mr Gray, injuring him in the leg, according to Twitter posts by an American journalist, Nolan Peterson. Video and photos recorded by Mr. Gray show the two camouflaged fighters receiving first aid and getting into a military ambulance shortly afterwards, with Mr. McCaffery’s face and head covered in bloody bandages.
Ms Gray, who is a nurse, said she spoke with her son via video after the attack, which confirmed the two were injured. “He’s fine,” she says of her son. “The other boy that worries me the most.”
Mr McCaffery’s family did not respond to a request for comment. Ms Gray said at least one member of the McCaffery family was traveling to Ukraine.
Mr. Gray was an Army infantry sergeant who deployed twice to Iraq during the height of hostilities there, according to the military. He told the Daily Texan in 2009 that he was medically retired with a Purple Heart.
Mr McCaffery has only been in the military for two years – a far cry from standard enlistment. He deployed to Afghanistan for a month in August 2021 and left the military in January. The army did not give a reason for his release.
Ms Gray said the pair grew close in Ukraine and went everywhere together.
Mr. Gray has been a strong supporter of defending Ukraine, she said. He moved to the country before the war, joined the army during the Russian invasion and has made several media appearances since to explain his decision.
“It’s my moral obligation,” he told Fox News in early March. “They are some of the best people in the world.”
Jane Arraf contributed to the reports and Kirsten Noyes contributed to the research.