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‘A true patriot’: Citrus County man killed in Ukraine remembered as a hero

Friends said Stephen Zabielski was fighting with an international battalion of people from all over the world.

CITRUS COUNTY, Fla. — It's a feeling of urgency you can't explain and it's driving Americans across the country to help Ukrainians fight for their freedom.

A Tampa Bay man took his patriotism abroad and paid the ultimate sacrifice. U.S. Army veteran Stephen Zabielski was killed in a Ukrainian village. The 52-year-old was fighting alongside a dozen men.

"He understood that freedom isn't free, that there's a price to be paid," Miceál O'Hurley, a longtime friend of Zabielski, said.

He says Stephen was fighting with an international battalion of people from all over the world. Their common language was English and they all came from military backgrounds. 

"He was a good man. He was a good husband, a good father," O'Hurley said. "He was just good. Losing someone like him stays with you."

The two were friends for over 30 years and met in New York near where Zabielski was from in Cranesville, N.Y.

"I met Steve when I was a soldier. I served in the first ranger battalion in the 82nd airborne and lived in the mid-Hudson region," O'Hurley said. "Steve lived upstate and we ran into each other on a weekend outing with motorcycles."

Stephen's love for his Harley-Davidson is what O'Hurley will remember. The last time the two saw each other was in February in Ukraine.

"I was in Kyiv where all the soldiers get processed through, including the international brigade," O'Hurley said. "I'm standing in line and I hear this American voice behind me. I hear Steve saying, 'Gee, you got old and fat!' That's the first time I knew Steve was in Ukraine."

He wasn't surprised his friend made the decision to fly and fight abroad, saying his family has roots in that region.

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"I think he wanted to make a contribution for what he believed in. He was a good patriotic American and the truest word of patriotism," O'Hurley said. "He wasn't there to be a conqueror, he was there to help. He cared about what was happening to the Ukrainian people and wanted to put a stop to it."

He embodied the spirit of a hero, dying trying to protect others. The State Department confirmed Zabielski's death. An obituary written in the local paper where his family is from says he died May 15, 2022.

"He was fighting in a particularly difficult area," O'Hurley said. "He won't be the last American to die."

Stephen is the second known American to die in the war-torn country. The first was 22-year-old U.S. Marine veteran Willy Joseph Cancel.

"There are many Americans that are fighting for what they believe in and I think more will," O'Hurley said. "I know that the Ukrainians deserve our help the same way Europe deserved our help in World War II. This is about freedom and democracy. Steve understood that and he was willing to fight and die for it. It was a noble sacrifice."

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