IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

American killed fighting alongside Ukrainian forces, official says

"I am saddened to learn that ... Willy Joseph Cancel, a former U.S. Marine, has been killed while bravely fighting alongside Ukrainian forces in Ukraine," the New York official said.

An American fighting with Ukrainian forces has been killed in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, according to a New York official. 

Willy Joseph Cancel, 22, died in Ukraine, a county executive confirmed in a statement to NBC News.

Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus said that he “was saddened to learn that Orange County native Willy Joseph Cancel, a former U.S. Marine, has been killed while bravely fighting alongside Ukrainian forces in Ukraine." 

“We will never forget Willy’s bravery and sacrifice, and Orange County’s thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time,” he added. Neuhaus is currently serving on active duty in Europe in response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Cancel was killed on Monday after agreeing to go to Ukraine as part of his work with a private military contracting company, his mother, Rebecca Cabrera, told CNN.

Cancel went to Ukraine in mid-March and leaves behind his wife and their 7-month-old, his mother said.

“He wanted to go over 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 that maybe our American soldiers wouldn’t have to be involved in it,” Cabrera told CNN.

She said that his body has not been found.

"They haven’t found his body,” Cabrera said. “They are trying, the men that were with him, but it was either grab his body or get killed, but we would love for him to come back to us.”

Cancel was originally from Orange County, New York, his brother-in-law, Devin Tietze Jr., said to CNN. He was living in Tennessee before he left for Ukraine, he said. 

“He believed wholeheartedly this shouldn’t have happened and he wanted to go help the people in Ukraine,” Tietze said to the outlet.

Cancel's family did not immediately respond to NBC News requests for comment.

Hope Conley, a childhood friend of Cancel’s mother, said Willy was "a kind, gentle soul, he would do anything for anyone.”

She noted she didn’t have much interaction with Willy himself, but knew he always wanted to serve his community. He joined the ROTC in high school and was a volunteer fireman before he joined the Marines, she said.

“He had hoped one day he could return to New York and pursue a dream of becoming FDNY,” Conley said. 

Cancel served with the U.S. Marines from December 2017 through November 2, 2021, his service record shows.

His last duty assignment was with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. 

On Aug. 31, 2020, at a special court-martial at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, he was convicted "pursuant to the accused’s please, of violation of a lawful general order," his record states. Details of the accusations were not disclosed. He was sentenced to 154 days of confinement, his rank reduced to E-1, and a bad conduct discharge. 

Prior to heading to Europe, he worked as a corrections officer for CoreCivic, a company that owns and manages private prisons, from May 2021 to January 2022 in Tennessee.

“We wish to extend our condolences to the family and friends of Mr. Cancel, including his former coworkers at the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, where he was previously employed as a correctional officer,” Matthew Davio, CoreCivic spokesperson, said in a statement to NBC News.

“As a correctional officer, Mr. Cancel served his state and his community by helping maintain a safe, secure environment where inmates can participate in life-changing reentry programs. We are grateful for his service and saddened by his loss.”

The State Department is “aware of reports” of Cancel’s death and is “closely monitoring the situation,” a spokesperson told NBC News without offering further confirmation.

"Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment," the spokesperson said. "We once again reiterate U.S. citizens should not travel to Ukraine due to the active armed conflict and the singling out of U.S. citizens in Ukraine by Russian government security officials, and that U.S. citizens in Ukraine should depart immediately if it is safe to do so using any commercial or other privately available ground transportation options."