Orange County 22-year-old killed fighting in Ukraine; 'Never forget Willy's bravery'

Staff and wire report

A former U.S. Marine from the Hudson Valley was killed fighting alongside Ukrainian forces in the war with Russia, his relatives told news outlets in what’s the first known death of a U.S. citizen fighting in Ukraine.

Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus said in a statement he was saddened to hear of the death of Willy Joseph Cancel, a county native.

"We will never forget Willy’s bravery and sacrifice, and Orange County’s thoughts and prayers are with his family during this difficult time," Neuhaus said.

Cancel was a 2017 Newburgh Free Academy graduate and a former member of the Walden Fire Department.

Neuhaus said Cancel arrived in 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."

Cancel was a corrections officer in Tennessee and leaves behind a wife and baby, the statement said.

Rebecca Cabrera told CNN her 22-year-old son was killed Monday while working for a military contracting company that sent him to Ukraine.

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Cabrera said her son had signed up to work with the private military contractor shortly before fighting began in Ukraine in late February. 

“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 (so) 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 he was fighting alongside men from a number of countries.

The U.S. government said it had seen reports about the death but did not have official confirmation, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

“It’s very sad. He left a little baby behind,” President Joe Biden said.

Psaki reiterated warnings against U.S. citizens traveling to Ukraine.

“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.”

A firefighter, a Marine

Cancel transferred in to the Newburgh district after attending Washingtonville schools from second grade until 10th grade, the Washingtonville superintendent's office said.

A statement on the Washingtonville school district's website said while Cancel was in high school he participated in the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

"Willy loved being a member of the Air Force JROTC which led to him joining the U.S. Marine Corps right out of high school," Master Sgt. Christian Granda, a Newburgh teacher who knew Cancel, said in a statement. 

Granda said cancel "was a dedicated cadet who served our community well" and that it was a privilege to teach and mentor Cancel.

The Walden Fire Department said Cancel was an active member of the department before joining the Marine Corps.

"It is sad day for the community to learn this morning of the news reports of his death. We do not know of any arrangements at this time but we have been in contact with the family," the statement said.

Cancel leaves behind a 7-month-old son, according to an online fundraising page set up by a man identifying himself as his father. His wife received the call informing her of his death on Tuesday, the page said. The father wrote that Cancel made the decision in early March to go to Ukraine because he wanted to defend innocent people.

Cancel worked at a private prison in Tennessee from May 2021 until January, said Matthew Davio, a spokesperson for the private prison company CoreCivic. The Trousdale Turner Correctional Center, a medium security facility, is about an hour northeast of Nashville.

“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,” Davio said in a statement.

While in the Marines, Cancel served as a rifleman and was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He was given a bad conduct discharge after he was convicted of violating a lawful general order, Marine Corps spokesperson Maj. Jim Stenger said.

He had no war zone deployments, Stenger said. No other details on the bad conduct conviction were provided.

'He went there wanting to help'

The State Department also said it was aware of the reports and is “closely monitoring the situation,” but could not comment further “due to privacy considerations.” It also urged U.S. citizens not to go to Ukraine.

Cancel’s widow, Brittany Cancel, told Fox News he leaves behind a young son and that she sees her husband as 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.”

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

“He had dreams and aspirations of being a police officer or joining FDNY,” she told Fox. “Naturally when he found out about what was happening in Ukraine he was eager to volunteer.”

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians are believed to have died in the war. Other noncombatants from the U.S. have been killed, including a documentary filmmaker killed when his vehicle came under fire at a checkpoint and a man killed while he was waiting in a bread line.

A roommate who lived with Cancel in Kentucky in the months before he left for Ukraine said he became interested in going to help shortly after the war 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.”

Staff reporter Diana Dombrowski and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

This is a developing story. If you have any information or recollections of Cancel you would like to share, please email mrandall@gannett.com.