Americans held captive by Russian separatists in Ukraine have returned to the US

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. 

Dianna Shaw, Drueke’s aunt, told USA TODAY that the men would spend time with family over the next day or two. Drueke’s mother, Bunny Drueke, and Huynh finance, Joy Black, were en route after delays in reaching New York, she said.

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!” 

Huynh and Drueke this week 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.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. But Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, on Wednesday thanked Saudi Arabia on Twitter for helping facilitate the exchange. “We look forward to our citizens being reunited with their families,” he said.

PREVIOUSLY:Can the US do anything to save Americans captured by Russian forces? 

Earlier this week, Black told USA TODAY 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.”

Huynh and Drueke this week 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.

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. 

ABOUT THEIR CAPTURE:Two US military veterans felt compelled to fight Russia. They’ve been captured in Ukraine.

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. 

Chris Kenning is a national news writer. Reach him at ckenning@usatoday.com and on Twitter @chris_kenning.

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