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 freed Wednesday as part of a larger prisoner exchange months after their capture 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 family over the next day or two, said Dianna Shaw, Drueke’s aunt. Drueke’s mother, Bunny Drueke, and Huynh fiancée, Joy Black, were still en route Friday afternoon after delays in reaching New York, Shaw told USA TODAY.
U.S. government officials assisted in getting the pair safely to a hotel, Shaw said. The families plan to return by vehicle to Alabama as soon as Saturday.
U.S. Rep Robert Aderholt of Alabama announced the men had returned Friday on Twitter, writing that he had “been informed that Andy and Alex are back on American soil. These are definitely answered prayers!”
This week, Huynh and Drueke were first transferred to Saudi Arabia, which helped broker a swap with Russian-backed separatists that included eight other prisoners from four countries, including five British nationals. Family members said the men went through medical checks in Saudi Arabia.
During a briefing Friday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre thanked Saudi Arabia and Turkey for facilitating the exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia.
“We look forward to these U.S. citizens being reunited with their families,” she said.
Jean-Pierre also reiterated past administration warnings about the risks of traveling to Ukraine and participating in the fighting.
“We continue to urge Americans to devote their energies toward the many other opportunities that exist to help the country of Ukraine and also the people of Ukraine,” she 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 it go to voicemail. The message? It was the U.S. Embassy telling her the men had been freed.
Black, 21, said she was “happy for the first time in like four months.”
Shaw said there had been no forewarning of the swap was coming.
“I asked Alex yesterday if he knew he was being freed and he told me that they did not understand what was going on for several hours,” Shaw said Friday.
Huynh and Drueke didn’t know each other in Alabama but became friends in Ukraine, where they both went to aid Ukraine in its war with Russia, family members have 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 to Iraq in 2008.
Around 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 afforded prisoners of war.
Chris Kenning is a national news writer. Reach him at email@example.com and on Twitter @chris_kenning.