An Edmonton man was killed earlier this month while serving as a medic with the Ukrainian military, say family members who describe him as a caring and humble son, brother and husband.
Joshua Mayers, 34, went to Ukraine in September to offer his help during Russia’s nearly two-year long invasion. He had previously worked as a paramedic in Alberta, including nearly 10 years with Alberta Health Services.
“He was his own person. He never bragged about anything he ever did,” his mother, Janet Penner Epp, said in a phone interview.
“A lot of his heroic stories I heard from other people that were in his life.”
The family was told Mayers had been sent out with a group of soldiers to protect a tree line two weeks ago near the eastern city of Bakhmut.
Six military members, including Mayers, headed out into a drizzly and dark night when it is believed a drone discovered the crew, said Penner Epp.
The Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa said Mayers was reported missing.
“On Nov. 10, 2023, Canadian citizen Joshua Mark Mayers, who served in the military unit of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, was reported missing in action in the vicinity of Klishchiivka, Donetsk region,” the embassy said in an email.
It added that it is in contact with his family and will continue to provide all available information.
Global Affairs Canada said it’s aware of an incident involving a Canadian in Ukraine, and officials are working with local authorities and providing consular assistance. The department said it knows of nine Canadians who have been killed in Ukraine since the Russian invasion.
The family was notified of Mayers’ death on Nov. 12 in what Penner Epp calls a “blessing of an accident.”
She said one of her son’s co-workers in Edmonton was in a group chat with his military colleagues in Ukraine, and some said Mayers had died in a drone strike.
“That is the only way we know that he has passed away. Otherwise, all we would know right now is he’s missing in action,” said Penner Epp.
“I’m so thankful that we know the truth.”
Mayers married his wife, Cathryn, last year. He loved camping, hiking and playing board games with his wife, friends and two younger siblings, said Penner Epp.
He was a great brother and friend who spent his life wanting to help others, said his brother Matt Mayers.
“I think that was part of his motivation for going.”
He said the two brothers exchanged emails, but Joshua Mayers shielded his younger brother from the brutalities of the war.
Matt Mayers said he later heard from those who knew his brother in Ukraine, who said the paramedic had been going through a range of emotions.
“He was scared. The last few weeks, the place that he was at was being shelled a lot. He was excited for the adventure, but also nervous.”
Irvin Mayers said his son was a “textbook big brother” who wanted to make a difference in the world.
Joshua Mayers worked as a lifeguard as a teen. As an adult, he worked as a paramedic in rural Alberta before joining Alberta Health Services.
The provincial health agency offered its condolences.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of our colleague … we have offered supports and resources to those at Alberta Health Services who are impacted by this loss,” it said in an email.
Mayers felt compelled to join the battle in Ukraine after feeling he wasn’t doing enough to help people, his family said.
In the summer, he told his parents of his plans.
“My stomach did a somersault, but I knew by the time he told me that he had made up his mind,” said his mother.
“So I told him I would always love him and I would always support him.”
The family said they’re unsure if or when they will be able to bring his body back to Canada. Irvin Mayers said they were told two army members tried to retrieve his son’s body and were killed in the process.
“The fighting is advanced and the Russian front has moved past where he was. So, there’s no opportunity for the Ukrainian military to recover him.”
An online fundraiser has been started to help cover immediate expenses for Mayers’ wife.
The family is planning a celebration of life in Edmonton for next week.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 23, 2023.
Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press