Willy Joseph Cancel, a 22-year-old American citizen, was killed in Ukraine while fighting alongside Ukrainian forces, Cancel’s family confirmed to media outlets Friday.
Rebecca Cabrera, Cancel’s mother, told CNN On top of his full-time job as a corrections officer in Tennessee, her son was hired in February by a private military contracting company. When the conflict in Ukraine erupted, he agreed to go fight.
“He wanted to go 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 maybe our American soldiers wouldn’t have to be involved in it,” Cabrera told reporters.
She stated that Cancel’s body had not been found. Cancel was born in Orange County, New York. Steven Neuhaus, the county’s executive, expressed his sadness at Cancel’s death.
“We will never forget Willy’s bravery and sacrifice,” Neuhaus said in a statement. “Orange County’s thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”
Cancel is the first American known to have been killed while fighting in Ukraine, though other Americans have died in the conflict. According to Fox News, Cancel leaves behind a wife and a 7-month-old son. His widow, Brittney Cancel, confirmed his death to Fox.
During an unrelated event at the White House on Friday, President Joe Biden was asked about Cancel’s death. “It’s very sad. He left a little baby behind,” Biden said.
According to a GoFundMe page set up by a man identifying himself as Willy Joseph Cancel’s father, Brittany Cancel received a call on April 26 informing her of her husband’s death. In less than a day, the page raised more than $14,000.
“Our entire family is simply distraught, and we have no idea how to proceed,” reads the page.
According to Jalina Porter, the State Department’s principal deputy spokesperson, the agency is aware of the news reports but cannot comment due to privacy concerns.
“We also want to reiterate that U.S. citizens should not travel to Ukraine during this act of armed conflict – it is a very dangerous situation – and that Russian government security officials have singled out U.S. citizens in Ukraine,” she said. “If it is safe to do so, US citizens in Ukraine should depart immediately, using commercial or privately available ground transportation options.”
Cancel served as a rifleman in the Marine Corps and was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. According to Maj. Jim Stenger, a Marine Corps spokesperson, he had no war zone deployments and was given a bad conduct discharge after being convicted of violating a lawful general order. There were no other details provided about the bad conduct conviction.
Cancel graduated from Newburgh Free Academy in Newburgh, New York in 2017, according to the Times Herald-Record. According to the Washingtonville superintendent, he transferred to the Newburgh district after attending Washingtonville schools from second grade to tenth grade.
According to a statement on the school district’s website, Cancel was a member of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps while in high school.
“Willy loved being a member of the Air Force JROTC, which led to him joining the United States Marine Corps right out of high school,” said Master Sgt. Christian Granda, a Newburgh teacher who knew Cancel.
Cancel, according to Granda, “was a dedicated cadet who served our community well,” and it was a privilege to teach and mentor him.
Cancel was a “active member” of the Walden Fire Department before joining the Marine Corps, according to the Walden Fire Department.
Until January, Cancel worked at a private prison in Tennessee; he started in May 2021, said Matthew Davio, a spokesperson for the private prison company CoreCivic. The Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, a medium-security facility, is about an hour northeast of Nashville.