‘Happy to be home’: Veterans captured in Ukraine reunited with families in Alabama

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Military veterans Alex Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh are back in Alabama after being released as part of a 10-person prisoner exchange. They had been held by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since early June.

Drueke and Huynh arrived at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport on Saturday for an emotional homecoming to family members and friends.

“Surreal. I still have chill bumps. 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,” Drueke’s aunt, Dianna Shaw, told The Associated Press.

Shaw told they felt they did the right thing by going to Ukraine.

“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 ... they don’t want Ukraine to fall off the radar of people,” Shaw told

40-year-old Drueke from Tuscaloosa, and 27-year-old Huynh of Lawrence County, had arrived at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport the day before they arrived in Alabama.

“We’re looking forward to spending time with family and we’ll be in touch with the media soon,” Drueke told the AP shortly after arriving in the United States. “Happy to be home.”

Drueke, a U.S. Army veteran and Andy Huynh, a former Marine, traveled separately to Ukraine to help defend democracy against Russian invaders, according to the AP.

The pair, sharing the same home state, became friends in Ukraine.

“They became buds,” Dianna Shaw said in an interview in June.

The pair later went missing on June 9 in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine near the Russian border.

On Sept. 21, Russian separatists released 10 prisoners, including Drueke, Huynh and five British nationals, in a release mediated by Saudi Arabia.