Two military veterans from Alabama who volunteered to defend Ukraine from Russian invaders but were captured are back home, according to a statement provided to the Guardian on Sunday.
The statement from the family of Alex Drueke, 40, said he and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, were among 10 foreign nationals included in a prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia that was mediated by the Saudi Arabian government.
After Drueke and Huynh underwent a medical examination and were cleared to travel, their families arranged for the pair to fly commercially from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to New York. From New York they flew to Birmingham, arriving shortly after noon on Saturday, the Drueke family statement said.
Drueke’s mother, Lois “Bunny” Drueke, and Huynh’s fiancee, Joy Black, met the pair in New York and accompanied them home to Alabama.
Drueke’s aunt, Dianna Shaw, who has served as a spokesperson for the two families, said the two men were “in excellent spirits”. She provided a picture of them relaxing at a bar in Birmingham, 41st Street Pub & Aircraft Sales.
Shaw said the families would focus on the two men’s health before they underwent interviews with US and Ukraine government officials “to document their treatment while in captivity”.
A statement attributed to Huynh said he and Drueke survived in captivity thanks in part to knowing people in Alabama and elsewhere in the US were praying for them.
“That’s what got us through,” the statement said. “I have no regrets about going.”
Huynh said the men’s captors made them say things to Russian media that were insincere.
“Anyone who knows us would understand that wasn’t us,” the statement said.
Drueke said he wanted “to thank everyone who helped secure our freedom”, including the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken.
“Whether you called your congresspeople, told a neighbor about us, prayed for us, whatever you did, you helped make this possible,” Drueke said.
The statement from Drueke’s family said his first request upon returning to Alabama was for a beer and a reunion with his dog, Diesel, a 100lb mastiff. Huynh asked to eat his favorite fast food and to get a haircut he could show off at church on Sunday with Black.
Drueke completed two tours of combat with the US army in Iraq – leaving him with post-traumatic stress disorder – before going to Ukraine via Poland in April. He taught Ukrainian soldiers how to use weapons from other countries in their fight against the Russian invasion, which began on order of Vladimir Putin in February.
A member of Drueke’s unit called his mother and told her her son and Huynh were captured during a gunfight on 9 June, north of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
Drueke and Huynh, who served with the US marines, were taken to a detention center in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, which has been under Russian control.
They later appeared in Russian media clips, Huynh purporting to be against war and Drueke describing how he surrendered without firing a shot.
The statement from Shaw said Drueke and Huynh’s families “will continue to advocate for support for Ukraine”.
“If the democracy of Ukraine falls to Russian dictatorship, then free Europe is in peril, and the United States could be too,” the statement said.
US officials including Joe Biden have discouraged Americans from volunteering to defend Ukraine. While the US is helping Ukraine by providing billions of dollars in weapons and other resources, officials have warned they are limited in their ability to help US citizens in cases where things go wrong there.
Many US nationals have nonetheless travelled to Ukraine. A handful have been killed.