After spending about four months in the captivity of Russian-aligned forces in Ukraine, Alabama veterans Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh and Alexander Drueke are back in their home state of Alabama.
The two were captured in Ukraine during a fight in the Kharkiv area back in June, and released Wednesday as part of a 10-person prisoner exchange brokered by the Saudi Arabian government.
Saturday afternoon, they returned home to Alabama and were greeted at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport by a waiting crowd of cheering family members and friends, and media.
The two men rode down the escalator near baggage claim No. 3 at around 12:30 p.m. Saturday, where they were hugged by their family members who feared they would never return home.
The men said through a representative that they would speak to the press after returning home.
“I knew this day would come. I absolutely knew it,” said Dianna Shaw, Drueke’s aunt, who has handled interview requests for the family. Shaw is the sister of Drueke’s mother, Lois “Bunny” Drueke.
“I knew that Alex and Andy had the training and they had the guts to make it through whatever came their way,” she said. “I knew that our governments were not going to give up on them, the American government and the Ukrainian government, we had their promise that they would not be given up on.
“And we also had the prayers, and the good wishes of so many people that we felt, I mean, it truly lifted us up and got us through this.”
Shaw said she had spoken with the men and that they were mostly doing well after their ordeal. She noted that they had been treated for dehydration and had eye sensitivity due to wearing blindfolds while in captivity.
Huynh, 27, of Lawrence County, left the U.S. in early April to fight with Ukrainian forces. The son of Vietnamese immigrants, he had served as a U.S. Marine for four years and, before his departure, was a student at Calhoun Community College.
Drueke, a 39-year old from Tuscaloosa, is an Iraq War veteran who told his family he had been teaching Ukrainian troops how to use American-made weapons.
Shaw told AL.com at the airport that the two men still believed they were doing the right thing in helping Ukraine resist the Russian invasion.
“I do know that they both expressed their sincere love for the Ukrainian people that they met and their firm belief that this is a just fight for the Ukrainians,” Shaw said. “And they don’t want Ukraine to fall off the radar of people.
“Please continue to pray for the Ukrainian people and give to the Ukrainian aid agencies.”
U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), who announced Friday that the men were back in the United States, called the men’s return to American soil “definitely answered prayers.”
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) said in a news release that she had ordered an American flag to be flown over the U.S. Capitol in their honor.
“So many of us have been hoping, praying, and working toward this moment for months, and I couldn’t be more excited to see that these two men have landed safely on American soil,” Sewell said.
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