A former Marine who left Kentucky to defend Ukraine in March was killed this week while fighting alongside the Ukrainian military, according to his uncle. He is believed to be the first American killed in the fighting.
Willy Joseph Cancel Jr., 22, lived in Kentucky and worked as a detective before his death, his uncle, Christopher Cancel, said in an interview Friday.
The uncle said that someone who had fought with the younger Mr. Cancel had called his father and said that he had left for a night patrol on April 24 and that his unit was overrun by Russian troops, possibly the day after. The uncle said the caller indicated that his body had not yet been found.
A fundraising site created by the family says Willy Joseph Cancel Jr.’s wife was also called up Tuesday. “Your husband fought bravely, but unfortunately he did not make it,” said the caller, according to the report, which was written by his father. It did not say who called.
“Our whole family is simply desperate and we have no idea how to proceed,” the post said.
An official in the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said on Friday that three foreigners – an American, a Briton and a Dane – had been killed in battle for the Ukrainian army’s international legion. The official did not disclose their names and asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about them in public. In fact, all foreigners fighting for that branch of the army are part of Ukraine’s military because they receive public salaries and are required to sign contracts.
Mr. Cancel’s mother, Rebecca Cabrera, told CNN he worked for a private military construction company, but on Friday his uncle said the family did not know the name of the company and had not been contacted by any contractor after his death.
According to the Navy, Willy Joseph Cancel Jr. spent nearly four years in the Marine Corps and received a bad behavior that left the service as a private in November after serving time in the brig for an undisclosed criminal act.
The State Department said Friday that it was aware of the reports of Mr. Cancel’s death and would provide consular assistance to his family. “Out of respect for the family in this very difficult time, we have nothing further to announce,” said Jalina Porter, a spokeswoman for the department. “We also want to reiterate that US citizens should not travel to Ukraine during this active armed conflict.”
“It is a very dangerous situation,” she added, saying that US citizens in Ukraine were designated by Russian government security officials and that “US citizens in Ukraine should leave immediately if it is safe to do so by using commercially or privately available land transport options. “
Since Russia’s invasion on February 24, an unknown number of Americans have volunteered to help Ukraine in various ways, including hundreds of military veterans seeking to join warriors on the ground. Ukrainian officials claim that thousands of foreign volunteers have joined the ranks of its military, but the true number is difficult to trace.
Two other U.S. veterans involved in 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. Army, were wounded Wednesday when a Russian artillery shell hit their fighting position, according to Mr. Grays mother, Jan Gray.
The two were waiting to launch an ambush on a Russian tank when shrapnel hit Mr. McCaffery in the face and collapsed a concrete block wall on Mr. Gray and injured his legs, according to Twitter post by an American journalist, Nolan Peterson. Video and photos taken by Mr. Gray shows the two camouflage-clad fighters receiving first aid and shortly afterwards driving in a military ambulance, with Mr. McCaffery’s face and head covered in bloody bandages.
Russia-Ukraine war: key developments
Russian oil embargo. EU countries are likely to approve a step-by-step embargo against Russian oil, which closes a long-delayed measure that has divided the bloc’s members and highlighted their dependence on Russian energy sources. Ambassadors expect to give their final approval before the end of the week, EU officials said.
Ms. Gray, who is a nurse, said she spoke to her son via video after the attack, which confirmed the two had been injured. “He’s fine,” she said of her son. “The other boy I’m more worried about.”
Mr. McCaffery’s family did not respond to a request for comment. Ms. Gray said at least one McCaffery family member traveled to Ukraine.
Mr. Gray was an army infantry sergeant who deployed twice to Iraq, while hostilities were highest there, according to the army. He told The Daily Texan in 2009 that he was medically retired with a purple heart.
Mr. McCaffery was in the Army for only two years – far from the standard deployment. He deployed to Afghanistan for a month in August 2021 and left the Army in January. The Army did not provide a justification for his discharge.
Ms. Gray said the two men had grown close together in Ukraine and went everywhere together.
Mr. Gray has been a strong advocate for defending Ukraine, she said. He moved to the country before the war, joined the military when Russia invaded, and has since made several media appearances to explain his decision.
“It’s my moral obligation,” he told Fox News in early March. “These are some of the best people in the world.”
Jane Arraf contributed reporting and Kirsten Noyes contributed research.