While backpacking through eastern Europe, Ian “Frank” Tortorici met a girl and fell in love — both with the Ukrainian woman who would become his fiancée, and her home country.
But when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the former Marine from Lake Forest quit his job with the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement and flew to Kyiv, where he enlisted in the Ukrainian International Legion.
Trained as a paramedic, the Orange County native survived more than a year of battles from Irpin to Bakhmut. While on leave from the front, however, Tortorici, 32, was killed last week at a central Kramatorsk restaurant during a Russian missile attack, according to his family.
“He never got wounded. He never got hurt on any of the operations, with the exception of one concussion,” his father, Jon Frank, told the Southern California News Group in a phone interview on Tuesday, July 4. Then, “he was killed on leave eating in a restaurant by a Russian collaborator, who called in a (missile) strike.”
A U.S. State Department official confirmed the death late Tuesday “of a U.S. citizen in Kramatorsk, Ukraine.”
“We offer our sincerest condolences to the family on their loss and stand ready to provide all possible consular assistance,” the official said.
Numerous websites and social media posts also relayed news of Tortorici‘s death after a Los Angeles television station reported the story based on Frank’s Facebook post announcing Tortorici’s demise.
Tortorici is one of just a handful of U.S. veterans to have been killed in the Ukrainian war.
The Associated Press reported in May that at least nine American fighters had been killed in the war so far. Frank, a former Marine and a retired U.S. Marshal, believes there may be as many as 25 Americans killed in the war.
According to British news outlets, Russian S-300 missiles hit a crowded pizza restaurant in Kramatorsk on June 27, killing at least eleven people, including three children. The attack also injured more than 50 people and damaged about 100 other buildings and homes in the eastern Ukrainian city.
Tortorici was born in Oceanside and moved with his family to Orange County when he was 5 or 6, his father said.
While attending Laguna Hills High School, he joined the wrestling team and was a two-time CIF runner-up. He held the school’s record for pinning his opponents up until recently, his father said.
Upon graduation in 2009, he enlisted in the Marine Reserves to help pay for his college education.
He studied teaching at Seattle Pacific University but later went to work for Microsoft. Unhappy with the office environment, he became a law enforcement officer and paramedic for the U.S. Park Service.
After three years as a park ranger, he went to work for ICE and was stationed in Philadelphia. Whenever he had time off, however, he would travel to Europe to go backpacking and exploring.
It was during one of those trips that he began dating a woman he met in Ukraine, and they continued a long-distance relationship after he came home. Back in Philadelphia, he became active in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, his father said.
“As soon as the war kicked off, he resigned from ICE,” Frank said. “He thought his medical skills and other skills would be useful.”
Throughout the war, his father stayed in close touch through a secure channel, even though Tortorici asked that the rest of the family not be told that he was in Ukraine.
“He wrote me that he may not come home, and he was OK with it,“ Frank said. “He just told me I have other sons, and I’ll be OK and not to make a fuss over him.“
Speaking through tears, Frank said he tried to talk his son into coming home, but Tortorici said he was going to stay until the war was over.
Four times during the war, Frank thought his son had been killed. He tracked the war closely and knew when his son was stationed near the fighting. Each scare ended when Tortorici responded to his father’s posts, saying he was OK.
After news about the missile strike on Kramatorsk, however, Frank didn’t get a response from his son.
So, he wasn’t surprised when the State Department called him last Friday with news that his son had been killed.
“I already knew,” Frank said. “I knew he was at the restaurant. I knew he was off the (front) line.”
In his June 30 Facebook post, Frank called it “the worst news in my life.”
“He experienced a lifetime of death and horrors, but chose to stay. He loved his team, his girlfriend and Ukraine,” Frank wrote in his post. “He gave up a lucrative and comfortable life to prevent World War III.”
Known for his humility and goofy efforts to make people laugh, Tortorici was seen as fearless and as a leader by his teammates, his father said.
When not on the front, Tortorici spent time with his girlfriend. The couple planned to get engaged in October, after his girlfriend completed her traditional Ukranian “wedding towel.”
The couple wanted to have three children, wanting one to be a soldier and one to be a priest, Frank said.
He liked backpacking, hiking, and exploring. During the pandemic, he bought a 120-year-old house and restored it with his own hands.
Tortorici “was a hero,” his brother, Taylor, said in a post. “He always protected other people since he was young. He was the best big brother anyone could ask for, and the world is a worse place with him gone.”
Frank said he is now trying to get his son’s body back from Ukraine for a funeral in Orange County.
In addition to his father, Tortorici is survived by his mother, Sochitl Frank; two brothers, Anthony Tortorici Frank and Taylor Frank; and two half sisters, Celia Garcia and Mary Ellen Soto.