US Military Veterans Return Home to Alabama After Prisoner Exchange With Russia

by Suzanne Halliburton
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Alex Drueke and Andy Huynh, two military veterans who recently were freed by Russian separatists, were back home in Alabama this weekend thanks to a prisoner exchange earlier in the week.

The two had gone missing in June. Each had headed to Ukraine earlier this year to fight the Russians on behalf of the Ukrainians. The two military veterans then bonded because of their shared love for their home state.

The two first landed at New York’s Kennedy Airport. That was Friday. They then arrived at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport where they were greeted by a host of friend and family members.

“Surreal. I still have chill bumps,” Dianna Shaw told reporters gathered at the airport for the homecoming. She’s an aunt of Drueke’s. “I always imagined this day. I always held not just hope but belief in this day. But I thought it was going to be two or three years from now at best.”

Shaw also added: “There are prisoners of war who have been held for months and years. There are people who have been detained wrongfully for years and for this to come about in three months is, just, unimaginable to me. Even though I’m living it, it feels unimaginable, and I don’t want people to forget all the Ukrainians who are still being held.”

Saudi Government Negotiated Exchange For U.S. Military Veterans

The families of the two military veterans announced Wednesday that Drueke and Huynh were headed home. The Saudi government mediated a prisoner exchange. The Saudis also announced that a Russian separatist group released prisoners from Great Britain, Sweden, Canada, Croatia and Morocco.

The two Americans had gone missing in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. That’s in the northeastern section of the country near the Russian border. Drueke is an Army veteran who enlisted after 9-11. He told his family he was teaching Ukrainian soldiers how to use American-made weapons. Huynh, the son of Vietnamese immigrants, served four years in the Marines.

Russian state television reported that Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region captured the men. The United States does not recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic, so there are no diplomatic relations. That’s why the Saudis became involved in negotiations. Once the 10 men were set free, they flew to Saudi Arabia and then to their home countries.

The two military veterans didn’t speak to reporters when they arrived at the airport. Instead, the pair slipped into family cars to drive the final few miles home.

Alex Drueke, 40, and Andy Huynh, 27, had gone missing June 9 in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine near the Russian border. The Alabama residents were released as part of a prisoner exchange. The pair had traveled to Ukraine on their own and bonded over their shared home state.