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 believed to be the first American killed in the fighting.
Willy Joseph Cancel Jr., 22, lived in Kentucky and worked as a correctional officer before his death, the uncle, Christopher Cancel, said in an interview on Friday.
The uncle said that someone who had been fighting alongside the younger Mr. Cancel had called his father and said that he had left for a nighttime patrol on April 24, and that his unit was overrun by Russian troops, possibly the next day. The uncle said that the caller indicated that his body had not yet been recovered.
A fund-raising page set up by the family says that Willy Joseph Cancel Jr.’s wife also got a call, on Tuesday. “Your husband fought bravely, but unfortunately he did not make it,” the caller said, according to the account, which was written by his father. It did not say who made the call.
“Our entire family is simply distraught, and we have no idea how to continue,” the posting said.
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 official did not provide their names for the record and asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about them publicly. Any foreigners fighting for that branch of the army are effectively part of Ukraine’s military because they receive government salaries and are required to sign contracts.
Mr. Cancel’s mother, Rebecca Cabrera, told CNN that he was working with a private military contracting 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 Marine Corps, Willy Joseph Cancel Jr. spent nearly four years in the Marine Corps and received a bad conduct discharge, leaving the service as a private in November after serving time in the brig for an undisclosed criminal offense.
The State Department said on Friday that it was aware of the reports of Mr. Cancel’s death and would provide consular assistance to his family. “Out of respect to the family during this very difficult time, we don’t have anything further to announce,” said Jalina Porter, a department spokeswoman. “We also do want to reiterate that U.S. citizens should not travel to Ukraine during this active armed conflict.”
“It is a very dangerous situation,” she added, saying that U.S. citizens in Ukraine were being singled out by Russian government security officials, and that “U.S. citizens in Ukraine should depart immediately, if it is safe to do so using commercial or privately available ground transportation options.”
Since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, an unknown number of Americans have volunteered to help Ukraine in various ways, including hundreds of military veterans seeking to join fighters on the ground. Ukrainian officials claim that thousands of foreign volunteers have joined the ranks for its military, but the true number is hard to track.
Two other American veterans involved in fighting in Ukraine were wounded 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, both of whom had served in the U.S. Army, were injured on Wednesday when a Russian artillery shell hit their fighting position, according to Mr. Gray’s 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, injuring his leg, according to Twitter posts by an American journalist, Nolan Peterson. Video and photos recorded by Mr. Gray show the two camouflage-clad fighters receiving first aid and riding in a military ambulance a short time later, with Mr. McCaffery’s face and head covered in bloody bandages.
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Ms. Gray, who is a nurse, said she spoke with her son by video after the attack, who confirmed that the two had been wounded. “He’s doing well,” she said of her son. “The other boy I’m more concerned about.”
Mr. McCaffery’s family did not respond to a request for comment. Ms. Gray said at least one McCaffery family member 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 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 short of the standard enlistment. He deployed to Afghanistan for one month in August 2021 and left the Army in January. The Army did not give a reason for his discharge.
Ms. Gray said the two men had grown close in Ukraine, and went everywhere together.
Mr. Gray has been a vocal proponent of defending Ukraine, she said. He moved to the country before the war, joined the military when Russia invaded, and has made several media appearances since 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.