The long journey home for a Marine veteran killed in Ukraine
‘It was an amazing feat of a bunch of unselfish individuals'
A group of dedicated American veterans working with Ukrainians spent months looking for the body of retired Marine Capt. Grady Kurpasi, who was killed in April while fighting against Russian forces.
The final recovery of Kurpasi’s body in the Kherson region required a drone, a dog team, and mine clearing experts to find a way through mines and unexploded ordnance.
After recovering Kurpasi’s remains in early April, the team then had to overcome weeks of bureaucracy to get Kurpasi’s remains out of Ukraine before finally bringing him home to his family on May 19.
The story of how Kurpasi was found and ultimately brought back to his loved ones shows how committed veterans are to bringing everyone home, no matter how long it takes.
Joining The Marines After 9/11
On Sept. 11, 2001, Kurpasi was in New York City working as a computer programmer when terrorists struck. The attacks inspired him to join the Marine Corps, according to a GoFundMe campaign for his wife and daughter.
He served in the Marines from November 2001 until 2021, ultimately becoming an infantry officer, according to his official record, which the Marine Corps provided to Task & Purpose. He graduated from Scout Sniper training in 2005.
Subscribe to Task & Purpose Today. Get the latest military news, entertainment, and gear in your inbox daily.
Kurpasi deployed in support of operations in Iraq three times: During the 2003 invasion, then from September 2004 to March 2005; and again, from February to October 2007. He then attended UCLA on a scholarship from the Pat Tillman Foundation and received his commission when he graduated in 2011. He was promoted to captain in July 2015 and his last duty assignment was with the headquarters battalion, 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
He saw combat as a Marine, earning a Purple Heart, a Combat Action Ribbon, and three Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals.
When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Kurpasi once again felt the need to act, according to the GoFundMe campaign. He initially planned on training Ukrainian troops, but was eventually tasked with leading a squad in combat.
Kurpasi went missing near Kherson in April 2022. For months, his fate was uncertain.
Searching For A Lost Veteran
Then in August, four months after Kurpasi disappeared, The Romulus T. Weatherman Foundation took up the cause of finding him. The Weatherman Foundation is a group of US veterans, relief and humanitarian workers, and Ukrainians dedicated to delivering humanitarian and informal security assistance. The foundation is led by Meaghan Mobbs, a West Point graduate, former paratrooper and combat vet, while Joe Norbeck, a retired Army intelligence and special operations veteran, led the search for Kurpasi in Ukraine.
Mobbs felt a personal connection to Kurpasi because both were scholars with the Pat Tillman Foundation, she told Task & Purpose.
For months, the Weatherman team went down numerous rabbit holes, chasing tips that Kurpasi was in Russian custody or being treated in a hospital, but all those leads turned out to be dead ends, Mobbs said.
The break came in January, when Mobbs spoke with an American serving in Ukraine’s International Legion, who told her that he had been tasked with recovering the body of a fallen American.
“I said: Holy hell, are you talking about Grady?” Mobbs recalled. “And he said, ‘Yes, do you know him?’ And I said: No, but I’m a Tillman Scholar, like he was, and we’ve been looking for him for months.”
The American said his unit had grid coordinates for Kurpasi’s remains. But a heavy Russian presence in the area had meant that the Ukrainian forces would have been annihilated if they had tried to reach Kurpasi, Mobbs said.
Bringing Grady Home
The Ukrainians had since liberated the region, but the American said that the Ukrainian Legion had been unable to carry out the mission. He gave the six-digit grid coordinates to Mobbs.
Mobbs said the Weatherman team also worked with Andrew Hill, a British member of the International Legion who had fought alongside Kurpasi on the day he disappeared. Hill had been captured and later released by the Russians,
The foundation was also able to use its other contacts on the ground, including a former Green Beret who had served with the International Legion, to secure the Ukrainian government’s assistance in searching for Kurpasi’s remains, Mobbs said.
“Ultimately, it’s our breadth and depth of relationships on the ground that made this effort possible,” Mobbs said. “Trust in Ukraine is critical and without investing in those relationships and networks, easy is hard and hard is impossible in that country right now.”
Kurpasi was killed in a village near the town of Stanislav in Ukraine’s Kherson region while helping women and children escape from advancing Russian forces, Mobbs said.
After the foundation learned generally where Kurpasi’s remains were, it contacted two veterans – one British and the other American – on a Ukrainian explosive ordnance disposal team, who agreed to search the area for mines and unexploded ordnance, said Joe Norbeck.
Then the team launched a drone, which searched the grid coordinates and found several possible spots where Kurpasi’s remains might be, Norbeck told Task & Purpose..
The Ukrainian government agreed to allow an explosive ordnance team to participate in the search for five days, Norbeck said. After about four days, a team of Ukrainian troops, police, and scientific experts led by an American veteran found Kurpasi’s final resting place. They used a drone and demolitions dog to find a safe path to his body.
“We found a partial skeleton along with Grady’s combat equipment: His helmet, his plate carrier, his boots, and his backpack,” Norbeck said.
They’d found Kurpasi’s body. The next challenge was getting him home.
The local Ukrainian government organization that would have normally opened a police case on Kurpasi’s death, which would normally be needed to return his remains to the United States, had ceased to exist so the Weatherman team moved Kurpasi to a morgue in Odessa, about 120 miles away.
For close to the next two months, the team assembled the paperwork and permissions, including a death certificate from the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, which was required to fly Kurpasi’s body to Moldova and ultimately his home in North Carolina, Norbeck said.
Despite all the government red tape, Norbeck and Mobbs never doubted that Kurpasi would eventually be reunited with his loved ones.
“The impossible part felt like the location of the remains,” Mobbs said. “Once we found them, we were going to fight tooth and nail and do whatever was possible to get them home to his family.”
In honor of Kurpasi’s memory, some of his gear will eventually be donated to the Ukrainians, who plan to establish a memorial to the international volunteers after the war, Mobbs said.
In contrast to the Ukrainian government’s willingness to find and send home a fallen American, the US State Department was of little to no help during the entire effort to bring Kurpasi home, she said.
“That was probably the most demoralizing part of all of this,” Mobbs said.
A State Department spokesperson told Task & Purpose that the department is providing consular assistance and other help to Kurpasi’s family. “Out of respect for the family’s privacy during this difficult time, we have nothing further to add,” the official said.
An Amazing Feat
In addition to the Romulus T. Weatherman Foundation’s efforts, veterans in and outside of the United States spent months searching for Kurpasi after he went missing, said Don Turner, a Marine veteran serving as a spokesman for Kurpasi’s family.
“It was an amazing feat of a bunch of unselfish individuals spanning across the United States and all the way into Ukraine and beyond,” said Turner, who served with Kurpasi twice in the Marine Corps. “The family is very grateful and honored that so many people gave up so much of their own time to do something for somebody that they had never met.”
Timothy La Sage, a former Scout Sniper who served alongside Kurpasi in Ramadi, was at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City to receive Kurpasi’s remains on May 19.
“His reception at JFK with honors from the Port Authority of New York, they should be thanked as well,” La Sage told Task & Purpose. “They stopped everything, brought out their whole Port Authority ceremonial team and everyone and gave him a true patriot’s welcome home.”
Afterward, La Sage accompanied Kurpasi’s body on a flight to Wilmington, North Carolina, where his wife and daughter were waiting, La Sage said.
“Seeing his daughter break down and then crawl into the hearse with his remains was difficult,” La Sage said.
La Sage and other veterans had spent months gathering intelligence on Kurpasi’s last known location and sharing that information with people who might be able to help.
The long search for Kurpasi’s body in Ukraine shows that veterans will never give up on their teammates, La Sage said.
“Just like the Afghan pullout, Afghan refugee SIV cardholders,” La Sage said, “It took veterans to come together to find resources to get our people home.”
The latest on Task & Purpose
- 7 Hollywood actors who made the most realistic GWOT operators on screen
- How a Marine’s COVID-19 vaccine refusal led to 113 days in the brig
- Russia lost a hypersonic missile trying to destroy one of Ukraine’s Patriot missiles
- Air Force F-15 takes an accidental bath in drainage canal after botched landing
Fort Cavazos battalion commander fired for misconduct