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War in Ukraine

A retired Marine went missing in Ukraine. His family says he’s severely injured in a Russian hospital.

Grady Kurpasi, a retired Marine, went missing in Ukraine after a fire fight with Russian soldiers. His family believes he's in a hospital in Donetsk, where he is in critical condition.
Grady Kurpasi in his U.S. Marine uniform.
Grady Kurpasi in his U.S. Marine uniform.Courtesy Don Turner

The family of a retired U.S. Marine believe he is on life support in a separatist-controlled hospital in Ukraine after he went to fight back the Russian invasion alongside the Ukrainian military. His wife and those helping her are now pleading with American officials for greater help in getting him home. 

Grady Kurpasi, 50, traveled to Ukraine shortly after the war began in February to help with evacuations and train Ukrainian soldiers. He eventually joined up with the Ukrainian Foreign Legion and saw the atrocities committed in the communities outside Kyiv before going missing in the battlefields near Kherson, in Ukraine’s south, at the end of April. 

Kurpasi’s wife, Heeson Kim, said in an emotional phone call with NBC News that she shared a dossier with the State Department in June, which has since grown to 63 pages, that allegedly includes information on his location and how he was tracked across Ukraine. It was gathered over months by a team of veterans who served with Kurpasi in the Marines and a group of nongovernmental organizations that took on his case. 

Kim said she did not feel like the agency was “putting their effort and resources” into the information collected and the agency had not shared any intel about his case. 

“I just want him home in whatever shape he is in,” she said. “I want him here alive. I want us to have a second chance. Please give us a second chance and bring him home.”

Grady Kurpasi with his wife, Heeson Kim, and their daughter.
Grady Kurpasi with his wife, Heeson Kim, and their daughter.Courtesy Don Turner

A State Department spokesperson said the agency was “aware of unconfirmed reports regarding a missing U.S. citizen in Ukraine. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment at this time.”

American veterans who served with Kurpasi teamed up with organizations working in Ukraine or with local connections to track his location for months. By following his cellphone signal and connecting with witnesses on the ground, they said they have successfully followed Kurpasi from a field hospital in a Kherson shopping mall to an area in the Donetsk region largely under the control of Russian separatists. 

NBC News has not confirmed all the sources and methods used by those tracking Kurpasi or his location, as those involved feared it could endanger people in the field and their ability to keep tabs on Kurpasi and others. 

“We don’t want anything linking to sources on the ground that are still operational, especially at this time when the Donetsk region has been taking a lot of hits and the fact that the DPR and the Russian forces are really clamping down on separatists within the region,” said Dominik Bryne, who leads The Presidium Network, a nonprofit group that helped return captured British soldiers from Ukraine and has worked with Kurpasi’s family since May. 

“We have to be extra careful, but we do know that [Kurpasi] is in a hospital in the Donetsk region,” he added. “We know he’s on a form of life support there.”

As the Ukrainian counteroffensive continues, the front lines are inching closer to that hospital. Now his family and friends are increasingly concerned, saying he could be in further danger if he is not moved. Though stable and showing eye movement, he is on a feeding tube and in critical condition, witnesses told the family. 

The group working on Kurpasi’s behalf said they are struggling to receive acknowledgement from the State Department or Russia regarding their work, as they hope to change his status from missing in action to a prisoner of war, which would provide him greater protections. 

The Richardson Center for Global Engagement, a nonprofit led by former New Mexico Gov. and UN Ambassador Bill Richardson that has helped with hostage negotiations in Russia and North Korea, said it has found Kurpasi’s family’s case to be valid and has chosen to pursue it. The center has brought up the retired Marine in recent discussions with the Russian government, a spokesperson confirmed.

The Russian Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Defense did not respond to a request for comment. 

Grady Kurpasi speaks to a Ukrainian soldier in Kyiv in early April. He would go missing outside Kherson later that month.
Grady Kurpasi speaks to a soldier in Kyiv in early April. He would go missing outside Kherson later that month.Courtesy George Heath

Whether Kurpasi is alive or dead has been unknown for some time, which is why he was listed missing in action by the Ukraine Defense Ministry. Those who served with him said that he did not return and was presumed dead initially, but they later received word that he may have survived a mission in which much of his unit was killed or captured. 

“We learned a little bit more and we’re pretty sure that Russia still does have Grady, but for some reason that’s not been confirmed,” said A.J. Smith, who served in the U.S. Army before he traveled to Ukraine and operated in Kurpasi’s unit, which he said was filled with Foreign Legion members from numerous countries. 

Kurpasi was with Andrew Hill, a British soldier fighting in Ukraine outside Kherson, when they came under fire at the end of April. That is where they believe Kurpasi was severely injured. Hill was taken prisoner and released last month by Russia along with 11 other foreign fighters in a prisoner exchange. That Kurpasi wasn’t released with Hill and part of those negotiations was upsetting to his family, those working on his case said. 

A retired Marine Corps officer, Kurpasi was adopted by an American couple from South Korea as a young child. He served multiple tours in the Iraq War, where he was wounded by a suicide bomber as an enlisted soldier. He received the vaunted Pat Tillman scholarship — which provides education funding to promising leaders with military backgrounds — while in the service, which allowed him to attend UCLA and become a commissioned officer. Kurpasi has lived in North Carolina with his wife since he retired in 2021.

Those who served with him in Ukraine and in the Marines said Kurpasi was an incredible leader, who was quick to act when needed and would never send his unit to a place he wouldn’t himself venture. 

Many said they were immensely frustrated with what they felt was a slow response by the U.S. government, and it had left them effectively at a “diplomatic stalemate” as they did not know what more they could do. 

“It’s frustrating because with someone’s background like Grady’s you’d think more could be done,” said Don Turner, a retired U.S. Marine who served with Kurpasi in the Iraq War. “At least you would think so, especially after what he did for this country for 20 years.”