A U.S. Marine Corps veteran who traveled from the United States to join the war in Ukraine was killed in the fighting there this week, his family said Friday.

Willy Joseph Cancel, 22, is believed to be the first American fighter killed in the war.

Cancel’s father, Willy Cancel Jr., told The Washington Post that his son “just wanted to help out.”

“I’m not going to lie, I tried telling him, ‘Hey, think about it,’ ” said the elder Cancel, who also served in the Marines. “He thought people needed help.”

The nature of Cancel’s activity in Ukraine and the circumstances surrounding his death, first reported by CNN, were not immediately clear.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday that the U.S. government had not confirmed Cancel’s death, but that officials had “seen the reports.”


“We know people want to help, but we do encourage Americans to find other ways to do so rather than traveling to Ukraine to fight there,” Psaki said.

Cancel’s father said the family does not know how his son died or where.

“We honestly have no idea,” he said, adding that Cancel’s wife, Brittany, was notified by phone a few days ago.

Brittany Cancel did not respond to messages seeking comment. She told Fox News that her husband leaves behind a 7-month-old son.

Cancel’s mother, Rebecca Cabrera, told CNN that her son “believed in what Ukraine was fighting for, and he wanted to be a part of [the war] to contain it there so it didn’t come here.”

At least three other American citizens have been killed in Ukraine since the start of the invasion, but there’s no indication they were involved in the fighting. Serge Zevlever, a 62-year-old from St. Louis, was killed by suspected sniper fire outside the capital, Kyiv, just days into the invasion. Journalist Brent Renaud, 50, was fatally shot while reporting outside Kyiv on March 13. Days later, James Whitney Hill, 68, was killed while trying to obtain food for hospital patients in the northern city of Chernihiv.


It’s unclear how many Americans have traveled to Ukraine to fight. The Ukrainian government in March began recruiting western volunteers to join its newly formed International Legion of Territorial Defense. Officials said then that 20,000 foreigners had expressed interest, including about 4,000 Americans.

Cancel joined the Marine Corps in 2017 as an infantry rifleman, said Maj. Jim Stenger, a spokesman for the service. His awards indicate he spent some time at sea and in South Korea. Cancel left the military after being court-martialed in 2020 and serving a five-month jail sentence, the service said. A person familiar with the matter said Cancel was court-martialed after bringing a weapon onto base.

Cancel’s family said they are hopeful his remains will be located and returned to the United States.

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The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe and Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.