The remains of a retired U.S. Marine who died in Ukraine after joining the fight against the Russian invasion will be coming home Friday.
Marine Capt. Grady Kurpasi (ret.), 50, went missing in April 2022 after taking small-arms fire in the Kherson region. He was located a year later by the global human rights advocacy group, the Weatherman Foundation.
Kurpasi’s remains are being repatriated through a Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. His remains are expected to arrive in the U.S. Friday morning. There will be a brief ceremony at the airport before his body is flown by private plane to Wilmington, N.C., to be returned to his family.
On the day of his disappearance, the 20-year veteran of the U.S. military left his position to investigate incoming fire in southern Ukraine with British citizen Andrew Hill, according to the Weatherman Foundation. Hill was captured by Russian-backed forces and has reportedly been charged with being a mercenary. Kurpasi did not make it back to his troops.
Investigators from the Weatherman Foundation, founded by Bess Weatherman and Andrew Duncan, spent nine months working to locate Kurpasi’s remains and ensure their safe passage to American soil.
Finding Kurpasi’s remains was like “finding a needle in a haystack” Duncan told CBS News.
“We are not only bringing him home, but we spent months trying to find his remains,” says Duncan. “That was like a pet project for our organization because we feel very strongly that you never leave an American behind. Ever.”
Kurpasi intended to train soldiers and assist with evacuations
Kurpasi, a Purple Heart recipient, was known for “leading by example” and “consistently inspiring those around him with his dedication, strength, and unwavering loyalty” according to the veteran rescue and assistance non-profit Project Dynamo.
After retiring from the Marine Corps, Kurpasi felt he had to assist Ukrainians defending their country against the Russians. He intended to train soldiers and assist with evacuations but eventually joined the Ukrainian Foreign Legion, according to the Weatherman Foundation. Kurapsi is survived by his wife, Heeson Kim, and his daughter.
Kurpasi was adopted from Korea and grew up in New York City before he joined the Marines. As a child he flew into JFK airport to meet his new family, and now, the same airport will receive his remains Friday.
At least 12 Americans have been killed fighting in Ukraine
The State Department warns Americans to not travel to fight in Ukraine, specifically citing the singling out of U.S. citizens in Ukraine by Russia’s security officials, but U.S. citizens continue to make up some of the foreign fighters supporting Ukrainian troops.
At least 12 Americans have been killed fighting in Ukraine since the war broke out, according to “Task and Purpose.” The State Department does not confirm the total number of U.S. citizens killed in Ukraine.
Two U.S. military veterans who disappeared while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces were released in September after about three months in captivity, according to relatives.
Alex Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, disappeared in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine near the Russian border. Both had traveled to Ukraine on their own and became friends.
CBS News spoke to another former U.S. Marine who said he knew Huynh and Drueke and served with them in Ukraine before they went missing.
“We knew that by going over there and serving for the government of Ukraine, that little to no protections would be extended to us, and that the United States government would be powerless to help us,” said the veteran, who asked not to be identified.
It was witnessing the atrocities committed by Russian troops outside of Kyiv that motivated Kurpasi to stay and fight, Duncan said.
“These guys are heroes. They’re not doing this for any attention. They’re doing it knowing they don’t have any government support, and they’re still doing it,” Duncan said.
Margaret Brennan contributed to this report.