Former Orange County native Willy Joseph Cancel, the first United States citizen killed in Ukraine this week, was honored by local officials for fighting alongside Ukrainian soldiers battling the Russian invasion.
“I am saddened to learn that Willy Joseph Cancel has been killed while bravely fighting alongside Ukrainian forces in Ukraine,” Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus, who is currently serving on active duty in Europe as part of the U.S. response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine said in a statement Friday. “Willy arrived in Ukraine via Poland in mid-March and wanted to go because he believed in what Ukrainians were fighting for and wanted to be a part of it. He leaves behind his wife and a 7-month-old baby. We will never forget Willy’s bravery and sacrifice, and Orange County’s thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time.”
A former United States Marine, Cancel, 22, died Monday while working for a military contracting company alongside Ukrainian forces, and is the first citizen of the United States to die in that conflict.
“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,” Cancel’s mother, Rebecca Cabrera told CNN.
Before signing up for the Marines in 2017, Cancel graduated from Newburgh Free Academy, and attended the Washington Central School District from second through 10th grade.
“The Washingtonville Central School District mourns the death of a former student, Willy Joseph Cancel, who was killed fighting alongside Ukrainian forces in Ukraine,” the district said in a statement Friday. “Cancel attended Washingtonville schools for grades two through 10 before transferring to Newburgh Free Academy. While attending Washingtonville High School, Cancel was a member of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (JROTC). “The Washingtonville Central School District expresses our deepest sympathy and condolences to Cancel’s family and friends.”
During his time in Orange County, Cancel was also a member of the Walden Fire Department.
He served as a Marine from 2017-2021 and had signed up to work with the military contractor prior to the Feb. 24 Russian invasion, Cabrera told CNN.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that she heard reports about Cancel’s death but could not officially confirm it.
“First of all, our hearts go out to his family and loved ones,” she said. “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. It is a war zone.”
The State Department has not officially confirmed Cancel’s death.
“Well, we are aware of these reports, and certainly stand ready to provide all possible consular assistance to the family. However, out of respect to the family during this very difficult time, we don’t have anything further to announce,” Principal Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter said during a press conference Friday. We also do want to reiterate that U.S. citizens should not travel to Ukraine during this active armed conflict. It is a very dangerous situation – 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 commercial or privately available ground transportation options.”
A former Kentucky roommate who lived with Cancel before he went to Ukraine in March, said he wanted to help the Ukrainians after the fighting began.
“Right around when it was getting serious was when he said he wanted to go,” said 21-year-old Triston Mannahan. “He felt obligated because that (the war) was wrong and he wanted to help.”
Mannahan said that Cancel packed his things over a couple of days in mid-March and left for Europe.
“He’s really brave,” Mannahan said. “That’s what he wanted to do.”
Prior to going overseas, Cancel worked in Tennessee as a corrections officer at a private prison there from May 2021 through January.
“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,” The Trousdale Correctional Center spokesman Matthew Davio said.
Cancel’s widow Brittany Cancel told Fox News that her husband was a hero.
“My husband did die in Ukraine,” Brittany Cancel said. “He went there wanting to help people, he had always felt that that was his main mission in life. He had dreams and aspirations of being a police officer or joining FDNY. Naturally when he found out about what was happening in Ukraine, he was eager to volunteer.”