Two American veterans held captive by Russian separatists in Ukraine since June returned to the United States on Friday, arriving at JFK International Airport shortly after noon, a relative of one of the men told USA TODAY.
Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, and Alexander Drueke, 39, were both released on Wednesday in a larger prisoner swap months after they were captured in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region. Both men are from Alabama and are military veterans who sought to help Ukrainian troops.
The men would spend time with their families the next day or two, said Dianna Shaw, Drueke’s aunt. Drueke’s mother, Bunny Drueke, and Huynh’s fiancée, Joy Black, were still en route Friday afternoon after delays in reaching New York, Shaw told USA TODAY.
US government officials helped bring the couple to safety at a hotel, Shaw said. The families plan to drive back to Alabama as early as Saturday.
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U.S. Representative Robert Aderholt of Alabama announced that the men returned on Twitter on Fridaywriting that he had “been notified that Andy and Alex are back on American soil. Prayers are definitely answered!”
This week, Huynh and Drueke were first transferred to Saudi Arabia, which helped broker an exchange with Russian-backed separatists that included eight other prisoners from four countries, including five British nationals. Family members said the men underwent medical checks in Saudi Arabia.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. But Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to President Joe Biden, on Wednesday thanked Saudi Arabia on Twitter to help facilitate the exchange. “We look forward to our citizens being reunited with their families,” he said.
Black, Huynh’s fiancée, told USA TODAY earlier this week that she was at work when her phone showed an incoming call from Saudi Arabia. She let him go to voicemail. The message? He was told by the American Embassy that the men had been released.
Black, 21, said she was “happy for the first time in about four months”.
Shaw said there was no warning of the upcoming trade.
“I asked Alex yesterday if he knew he was being released and he told me they didn’t understand what was going on for several hours,” Shaw said on Friday.
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Huynh and Drueke did not know each other in Alabama but became friends in Ukraine, where they both went to help Ukraine in its war against Russia, family members said.
Huynh served as a Marine from 2014 to 2018. Drueke served as a chemical operations specialist in the Army Reserve from 2002 to 2014 and deployed to Kuwait in 2004 and Iraq in 2008.
At the time of their capture, two Britons and a Moroccan were sentenced to death by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine after prosecutors claimed they were mercenaries and not entitled to protections granted to prisoners of war.