Forward Ukrainian army positions in the eastern part of the front line in Donetsk oblast, Ukraine, on April 16.

Forward Ukrainian army positions in the eastern part of the front line in Donetsk oblast, Ukraine, on April 16. (Wojciech Grzedzinski/The Washington Post)

The 22-year-old veteran believed to be the first American killed while fighting in the Ukrainian military was serving as a volunteer, not a private contractor, two fellow fighters said Thursday, contradicting earlier reports suggesting the latter.

Willy Joseph Cancel joined the International Legion of Territorial Defense, the unit created by President Volodymyr Zelensky to encourage foreign fighters to help Ukrainian troops battle against Russian soldiers, and worked on a team with four other Americans, said one of the unit’s members, Cameron Van Camp, 31, of Ellensburg, Wash.

Van Camp said the team assisted Ukrainian soldiers in repelling Russian troops in Irpin, a suburb of the capital, Kyiv, and in fighting around the southern cities of Kherson and Mykolaiv — all hard-hit regions on the front lines of the war. Cancel’s calm demeanor and youthful appearance earned him the admiration of both fellow fighters and Ukrainian grandmothers who would come up and thank him for his service, Van Camp recalled.

“We were there to support Ukrainian forces,” said Van Camp, who was Cancel’s roommate and team leader. “That’s what we did. That’s what our mission was.”

Cancel’s family had previously said in an interview that he was fighting in Ukraine while working as a private military contractor. It was not clear if Cancel told loved ones that or if there was a misunderstanding of his volunteer contract. Zelensky called for international fighters to join the conflict in February, and while the exact number of U.S. citizens fighting in the volunteer force is not known, around 4,000 had expressed interest in joining by March.

Cancel’s status as a volunteer fighter was confirmed by another one of his unit members. And it is consistent with Pentagon statements that there are no Defense Department contractors in Ukraine. Jessica Maxwell, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said the Defense Department is not funding any contracts that involve sending contractors there and carried out a thorough examination of contracting data to confirm that.

Instead, the U.S. government allows Americans to fight in Ukraine on their own accord. In March, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov called incoming Western fighters “mercenaries” and said they would not receive prisoner of war status if captured.

Van Camp said Cancel paid for a flight in early March to Warsaw, where they first met. From there, Ukrainian buses took them to the border. Once in the country, they traveled on to Irpin, where they helped Ukrainian forces with tasks including locating enemy artillery and sniper operations.

Official foreign fighters do receive pay from the Ukrainian government, though neither Cancel nor his family have been paid for his service so far, his team members said. An Army spokeswoman, Madison Bonzo, confirmed that Van Camp had served in the U.S. military as a combat engineer, deploying to Afghanistan twice.

A European fighter in Cancel’s unit, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to safety fears in his home country, said they faced intense shelling in the city upon their arrival. The combat there, he added, was “different.”

“Basically we were dodging artillery left and right,” he said. “It was constant. Nonstop.”

Van Camp said he and Cancel helped the Ukrainian army bury civilian bodies that “littered” the border of Bucha and Irpin. In their downtime, they attempted to clean up the ransacked houses in the neighborhood they were stationed in, in case civilians returned to their homes.

“We just didn’t want people, if they were going to come home, to come home to that,” said Van Camp. “It was all their birth certificates, like baby photos, ultrasound photos, all of that stuff was just on the ground, thrown around, in trash cans.”

Civilians came under repeated assault in Irpin throughout March. Eight people, including two children, were killed there while trying to evacuate. An award-winning American journalist was shot dead in the suburb about a week later. Russian soldiers occupied Bucha for a month; the bodies of civilians were found strewn on streets and in mass graves when they left, sparking global condemnation.

Cancel’s unit members declined to comment on the details of his death or the status of his remains.

Cancel had served briefly in the Marine Corps, joining in 2017 as an infantry rifleman, said Maj. Jim Stenger, a spokesman for the service. He 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 a base.

The volunteer fighters remember Cancel as calm and collected despite being his group’s youngest member, and noted his ability to sleep in hostile environments — including through a cruise missile strike on one of the bases they were stationed at. They also said Cancel’s small frame and youthful appearance attracted attention from locals.

“Will got attacked, in the best way, by so many grandmas. So many babushkas just came up and grabbed him, and just started kissing him and thanking him,” said Van Camp. “They just saw him as this almost-kid from another country.”

Members of Cancel’s unit decided to leave Ukraine’s front lines in early May after his death to conduct what they described as “casualty operations,” including returning his belongings and speaking with his family. Cancel left behind a wife and 7-month-old child, whom Van Camp says they speak with almost daily.

“Will’s death is something that hit all of us hard, especially, again, he was the youngest and kind of the heart and soul of our team; he was kind of the glue,” said Van Camp. “But we also knew that we were likely to lose people.”

While Cancel’s teammates are stepping away from the conflict after almost two months on the front lines, some are considering returning to Ukraine as fighters or humanitarian volunteers in the future.

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The Washington Post’s Timothy Bella and Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report.

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