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American Willy Joseph Cancel killed fighting alongside Ukraine's forces, family says: "He believed in what Ukraine was fighting for"

U.S. Marine veteran killed fighting in Ukraine
U.S. Marine veteran killed fighting in Ukraine 03:56

A U.S. Marine veteran was killed fighting alongside Ukrainian forces in the war with Russia, his relatives told news outlets, in the first known death of a U.S. citizen fighting in Ukraine. Rebecca Cabrera told CNN her son, Willy Joseph Cancel, 22, was killed Monday while working for a military contracting company that sent him to Ukraine.

Cabrera said her son was working as a corrections officer in Tennessee and had signed up to work with the private military contractor shortly before fighting began in Ukraine in late February. She told CNN he agreed to go to Ukraine.

"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," she said.

Cabrera said her son's body has not been found.

"They haven't found his body," she 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."

She said her son flew to Poland on March 12 and entered Ukraine shortly after. She said he was fighting alongside men from a number of countries.

Cancel served in the Marines from 2017-21, joining the service the same year he graduated from high school. While in the Marines, he served as a rifleman and was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He had no war zone deployments, Marine Corps spokesperson Maj. Jim Stenger said.

The U.S. has not confirmed the reports of Cancel's death.

In a statement to CBS News, a State Department spokesman said: "We are aware of these reports and are closely monitoring the situation. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment. 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."

Cancel's widow, Brittany Cancel, told CBS News he leaves behind a 7-month-old son and that he went to Ukraine to help other people. 

"He just wanted to help people," she told CBS News. "He didn't go over there for money or any personal reason. He just wants to help the innocent people of Ukraine. That's all he wanted to do." 

She told Fox News her husband volunteered to go to Ukraine but also had aspirations of becoming a police officer or firefighter.

She said "he had dreams and aspirations of being a police officer or joining FDNY."

"My husband was very brave and a hero," Cancel told Fox News. "I did not expect to be a widow at 23 years old or for our son to be without a father. All I want is for him to come home, and to give him the proper burial he deserves."

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