Family of American missing in Ukraine say US response inadequate

Grady Kurpasi, who retired from the Marine Corps last year, is here speaking in 2019. Kurpasi was last seen April 26 in southern Ukraine, where his team of volunteers international organizations was engaged in combat with Russian forces. (Aaron Douds/US Marine Corps)

The family and friends of a US veteran missing in Ukraine have accused the Biden administration of inaction, saying any hope of finding him alive depends on diplomacy between Washington and Moscow, but that so far the Government efforts are lacking.

Grady Kurpasi, 50, was last seen on April 26 in southern Ukraine, where his team of international volunteers was engaged in combat with Russian forces. Those close to him fear he may have been killed or captured – and they are aware of the Kremlin’s recent statement that Americans withdrawn from the battlefield will not enjoy the protections given to prisoners of war.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the administration was closely monitoring the situation and seeking information for the family, but refrained from saying what the government might do. what’s more. Neither the Russian Embassy in Washington nor the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense responded to requests for comment.

The mystery surrounding Kurpasi’s fate presents a unique dilemma for President Joe Biden, who has rallied Western support for Ukraine while ruling out direct military intervention and strongly warning Americans against involvement. At least two American citizens were reportedly killed in the fighting, and two others were captured.

Kurpasi is a retired Marine Corps infantry officer and Iraq War veteran. On the day of his disappearance, he and a Briton, Andrew Hill, had left their position at a makeshift observation post to investigate the source of the incoming fire, a member of the group told The Washington Post. Hill was captured by Russian forces and two other members of their unit were killed shortly afterwards.

The State Department made contact with Kurpasi’s wife, Heeson Kim, shortly after his disappearance. Last month, a group of veterans who served with him in the Marines provided officials with a 46-page document detailing, among other information, the coordinates of his last known location and where his phone was detected after he disappeared. .

In a statement, the State Department said U.S. officials were in contact with Ukrainian and Russian authorities about U.S. citizens “who may have been captured by Russian forces or their proxies while fighting in Ukraine.” . The agency declined to specifically answer questions about Kurpasi’s disappearance.

His wife and friends said they were upset by what they said was a lack of urgency on the part of the administration. In an email, Kim said, “I’m not convinced they have or will invest any resources” to help find what happened to her husband.

Biden has faced public pressure from the families of other Americans detained by Russia, including WNBA star Brittney Griner, who pleaded guilty on Thursday to a drug case that has amplified the diplomatic standoff between world powers about the war in Ukraine.

Griner’s case has been raised to an office within the State Department that deals with citizens he decides are wrongfully detained, and the president has told his wife he is working hard to secure his release. It prompted a rebuke from the family of Paul Whelan, a Marine Corps veteran sentenced by a Russian court to 16 years in prison on espionage charges which he denied. Whelan’s sister told CNN last week she was “amazed” that her brother’s case hadn’t received such attention. Biden called her after the report, promising to secure her release, a White House official said.

The lack of a strong public response to Kurpasi’s disappearance may suggest the administration has made a distinction in how it views these cases. Griner was arrested while working in Russia as Kurpasi joined the war in Ukraine on his own accord.

Friends of Kurpasi said Biden has not spoken to the family and the US government rarely shares anything enlightening about the case. On the contrary, they argue, the State Department appears to depend on them for information. “The response I got was, ‘He was fighting under another flag, so keep digging and doing what you’re doing to help,'” said George Heath, one of Kurpasi’s friends.

The two American veterans captured in Ukraine, Alexander J. Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh, are being held by Russian-backed separatists. Drueke’s aunt, Dianna Shaw, said the family was encouraged by the efforts of State Department staff and Alabama lawmakers. US and Ukrainian diplomats are working to put the two men on a list of captives potentially eligible for negotiated release, she said.

“When you have good officials, you get good results,” Shaw said.

Kurpasi, who lives with his wife in North Carolina, was born in South Korea and immigrated to the United States. He enlisted in the Marines at age 29 and served three tours in Iraq, according to his military service record provided by the Marine Corps.

In 2007, Kurpasi was injured along with several other Marines when an insurgent detonated a suicide vest while on a mission in the city of Ramadi, said Don Turner, a veteran who served with Kurpasi and Heath.

Kurpasi was later commissioned after graduating from UCLA, where he received a scholarship from the Pat Tillman Foundation. The group offers scholarships to promising leaders with a military background. He retired from the military in 2021.

Although the US government warned US citizens not to join the war, Kurpasi, friends say, was forced to help Ukrainians fight back and felt his leadership experience would be invaluable. He arrived in mid-March and fought in battles outside the capital, Kyiv, before building a team that was sent south near Mykolaiv.

The events surrounding Kurpasi’s disappearance were recounted by a surviving member of his unit, Team Raven, who had been tasked with manning an observation post to halt the Russian advance outside the coastal city of Oleksandrivka and give the civilians time to escape.

The team members received fire from an area they believed to be a Ukrainian position, but they had no radio communication with nearby units, a German volunteer named Pascal told the Post. He spoke on the condition that his full name not be released, citing fear of reprisal.

Kurpasi and Hill, the British fighter, went to investigate. They responded by radio, saying they were receiving artillery and small arms fire and needed covering fire to return. Russian units shelled the position in response.

Willy Joseph Cancel, another US Marine Corps veteran who was part of Kurpasi’s team, was shot with a Dutch volunteer. Pascal said he tried to tend to their wounds but was unsuccessful. He described having to crawl over half a mile before running to a friendly unit.

Pascal said he couldn’t recover the bodies of those killed, and he didn’t see what became of Kurpasi and Hill after they left.

Hill was captured and later accused of fighting as a mercenary by officials from the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk, a Russian-backed area in eastern Ukraine. Russian state media reported that he faced the death penalty.

Photos taken from Hill’s phone and distributed to his contacts on the WhatsApp messaging platform after his capture appear to show a Russian fighter with camouflage tarp used by Kurpasi, his wife said. This led his family and friends to believe Hill might have information about what happened to Kurpasi, and they urged the State Department to work with their British counterparts to see if they can glean anything from him. .

Kim told Kurpasi’s friends that a State Department official told her they would try. A spokesperson for the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said the department would not discuss individual cases.

Many military veterans are working to find out what happened to Kurpasi, Turner said, adding that their friend would do the same if the tables were turned.

“When you’ve served with someone, you have a connection,” he said. “And that bond is unbreakable.”

Missy Ryan of The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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