Two U.S. military veterans who disappeared while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces have been released after about three months in captivity, relatives said Wednesday.
Alex Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, went missing in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine near the Russian border June 9. Both had traveled to Ukraine on their own and became friends because both are from Alabama.
The families announced their release in a joint statement from Dianna Shaw, an aunt of Drueke.
“They are safely in the custody of the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia and after medical checks and debriefing they will return to the states,” the statement said.
U.S. military veterans Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh and Alexander Drueke left their homes in Alabama to serve with Ukraine’s army on the battlefield. They were reportedly captured by Russian forces during fighting in eastern Ukraine in June 2022. Shaw said both men have spoken with relatives in the United States and are in “pretty good shape,” according to an official with the U.S. embassy.
The Saudi embassy released a statement saying it had mediated the release of 10 prisoners from Morocco, the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Croatia. Shaw confirmed that Drueke and Huynh were part of the group.
The United Kingdom confirmed that five British nationals had been released, and lawmaker Robert Jenrick said one of them was Aiden Aslin, 28, who had been sentenced to death after he was captured in eastern Ukraine.
“Aiden’s return brings to an end months of agonising uncertainty for Aiden’s loving family in Newark who suffered every day of Aiden’s sham trial but never lost hope. As they are united as a family once more, they can finally be at peace,” Jenrick tweeted.
British Prime Minister Liz Truss heralded the release on social media.
“Hugely welcome news that five British nationals held by Russian-backed proxies in eastern Ukraine are being safely returned, ending months of uncertainty and suffering for them and their families,” she tweeted.
In a statement late Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed the news.
“The United States is appreciative of Ukraine including all prisoners of war, regardless of nationality, in its negotiations, and we look forward to these U.S. citizens being reunited with their families,” he wrote. “We also thank our Saudi partners for helping to spearhead this humanitarian initiative and facilitating the return of ten foreign nationals, including the two U.S. citizens greeted earlier today by our embassy team in Riyadh.”
American military veterans Alexander Drueke, left and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh are seen with other foreign fighters in Ukraine. Blinken reiterated the dangers of traveling to Ukraine and joining the war there.
“Americans who travel to Ukraine to participate in the fighting there face significant risks and the United States cannot guarantee their safety,” he said. “We encourage U.S. citizens to devote their energies towards the many other opportunities that exist to help the country of Ukraine and its people.”
Russian state television had previously said Drueke and Huynh were being held by Russian-backed separatist forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The U.S. does not recognize the sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic and has no diplomatic relations with them, which made it necessary for others to lead efforts to get the men released.
Drueke joined the Army at age 19 after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and he believed he could help Ukrainian fighters because of his training and experience with weapons, Shaw said previously. Drueke pondered whether to go for a few weeks, she said, and then made up his mind and left in mid-April.
Druke’s mother received a call from Saudi Arabia on Wednesday morning and an embassy worker handed the phone to the man, Shaw said.
“He got on the phone and said, ‘Hi mom, it’s your favorite child,'” she said.
Huynh moved to north Alabama two years ago from his native California and lives about 120 miles (193 kilometers) from Drueke. Before leaving for Europe, Huynh told his local newspaper, The Decatur Daily, he couldn’t stop thinking about Russia’s invasion.
“I know it wasn’t my problem, but there was that gut feeling that I felt I had to do something,” Huynh told the paper. “Two weeks after the war began, it kept eating me up inside and it just felt wrong. I was losing sleep. … All I could think about was the situation in Ukraine.”
Huynh told his fiancée he wants a meal from McDonald’s and a Pepsi-Cola when he returns home, Shaw said.
The two men bonded over their home state and were together when their unit came under heavy fire. Relatives spoke with Drueke several times by phone while the two were being held.
One member of their squadron told CBS News this summer that they were all nearly killed by a Russian vehicle, when Drueke and Huynh destroyed it with a rocket-propelled grenade, saving their lives.
The Kremlin had said it didn’t know anything about Americans being held by Russia. But during a TV segment, a host on a Russian state media video could be heard mocking the families as images of the two appeared in the background.
Drueke’s mother previously told “CBS Mornings” that her son “felt very strongly that Putin needed to be stopped, because he said Putin is not going to be satisfied with just part of Ukraine, or even all of Ukraine.”
In: Alabama War Ukraine Russia United States Military United Kingdom