Grady Kurpasi’s family, missing in Ukraine, are asking for Biden’s help

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

Grady Kurpasi, 50, was last seen on April 26 in southern Ukraine, where his team of international volunteers have been engaged in battles with Russian forces. His loved ones fear he has been killed or captured – and they recall the Kremlin’s recent statement that Americans taken from the battlefield should not be given the protection afforded to prisoners of war.

A US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the government is closely monitoring the situation and is seeking information for the family, but did not say what else the government could do. Neither the Russian Embassy in Washington nor Ukraine’s Defense Ministry responded to requests for comment.

The mystery of Kurpasi’s whereabouts poses a unique dilemma for President Biden, who has rallied Western support for Ukraine while ruling out direct military intervention and strongly warning Americans not to get involved. At least two US citizens are said to have been killed in the fighting, and two others are said to have been captured.

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Kurpasi is a retired Marine Corps infantry officer and a veteran of the Iraq War. 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 her unit were killed shortly thereafter.

The State Department contacted Kurpasi’s wife, Heeson Kim, shortly after he was reported missing. Last month, a group of veterans who served with him in the Marines provided officials with a 46-page document containing, among other things, the coordinates of his last known whereabouts and where his phone was discovered after his disappearance , performed.

In a statement, the State Department said US officials are in contact with Ukrainian and Russian authorities regarding American citizens “who may have been captured by Russian forces or proxies in fighting in Ukraine.” The agency declined to specifically address questions about Kurpasi’s disappearance.

His wife and friends said they were upset by what they described as a lack of urgency in the administration. In an email, Kim said, “I have no confidence that they have invested or will invest” in finding out what happened to her husband.

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Biden has faced public pressure from families of other Americans being held by Russia, including WNBA star Brittney Griner, who on Thursday pleaded guilty to a drugs case that has widened the diplomatic deadlock between world powers over the war in Ukraine.

Griner’s case has been transferred to an office within the State Department that deals with citizens wrongfully imprisoned, and the President has told her wife he is working to secure her release. That drew a rebuke from the family of Paul Whelan, a Marine Corps veteran who was sentenced to 16 years in prison by a Russian court on espionage charges, which he denies. Whelan’s sister told CNN last week that she was “surprised” that her brother’s case hadn’t received as much attention. Biden called her after the report and promised to secure his release, a White House official said.

The lack of a strong public response to Kurpasi’s disappearance may indicate that the government has made a distinction in how it views such cases. Griner was arrested while working in Russia, while Kurpasi entered the war in Ukraine of his own accord.

Kurpasi’s friends said Biden has not spoken to the family and the US government rarely shares anything revealing about the case. Rather, they claim, the State Department appears to depend on them for information. “The response I got was, ‘He fought under a different flag, so keep digging and do what you can to help,'” said George Heath, one of Kurpasi’s friends.

Two US military 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 is encouraged by the efforts of the State Department and Alabama lawmakers. US and Ukrainian diplomats are working to put both men on a list of prisoners who may be eligible for a negotiated release, she said.

“If you have good officers, you get good results,” Shaw said.

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

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

Kurpasi later served as an officer after graduating from UCLA, where he received a scholarship from the Pat Tillman Foundation. The group awards educational grants to promising leaders with a military background. In 2021 he retired from the military.

Although the US government has warned American citizens against joining the war, Kurpasi, friends say, was forced to help Ukrainians fight back and found his leadership experience valuable. He arrived in mid-March and took part in battles outside the capital, Kyiv, before assembling a team that was dispatched south near Mykolaiv.

The events surrounding Kurpasi’s disappearance were narrated by a surviving member of his unit, Team Raven, who had been tasked with holding an observation post to repel Russia’s advance on the coastal town of Oleksandrivka and buy civilians time to flee.

Team members received fire from an area they believed to be a Ukrainian position, but they had no radio contact with nearby units, a German volunteer named Pascal told The Post. He spoke on condition that his full name not be released, fearing reprisals.

Kurpasi and Hill, the British fighter, set out to investigate. They radioed back and said they were receiving artillery and small arms fire and needed cover fire to return. In response, Russian units shelled the position.

Grady Kurpasi and Andrew Hill, both volunteer fighters in Ukraine, were spotted near Mykolayiv on April 26, according to a volunteer fighter who filmed the footage. (Video: Received from The Post)

Willy Joseph Cancel, another US Marine Corps veteran who was part of Kurpasi’s team, was hit along with a Dutch volunteer. Pascal said he tried to treat her wounds but was unsuccessful. He described having to crawl more than half a mile before running towards a friendly unit.

Pascal said he could not retrieve the bodies of those slain and did not see what became of Kurpasi and Hill after they left.

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

Photos taken by Hill’s phone and distributed to his contacts on the WhatsApp messaging platform after his arrest appear to show a Russian fighter with a camouflage tarpaulin used by Kurpasi, his wife said. It has led his family and friends to believe that Hill may have information about what happened to Kurpasi, and they have urged the Foreign Office to work with British colleagues to see if they can learn anything from him.

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

There are many military veterans working to uncover what happened to Kurpasi, Turner said, adding that if the roles were reversed, her boyfriend would do the same.

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

Missy Ryan contributed to this report.

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