TRINITY, Ala. — Alex Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh evaded Russian forces for hours, slogging through pine forests and marshesin Ukraine to avoid detection. The U.S. military veterans were left behind — “abandoned,” they said — after their Ukrainian task force was attacked, and determined that their best chance of survival was to hikeback to their base in Kharkiv.
What followed was an excruciating, often terrifying 104 days in captivity. They were interrogated, subjected to physical and psychological abuse, and given little food or clean water, Drueke and Huynh recalled. Initially, they were taken into Russia, to a detention complex dotted with tents and ringed by barbed wire, they said. Their captors later moved them, first to a “black site” where the beatings worsened, Drueke said, and then to what they called a more traditional prison run by Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.
Drueke, 40, and Huynh, 27, met with The Washington Post for three hours at the home of Huynh’s fiancee, Joy Black, in this rural town of about 2,500 outside Huntsville. It was their first extensive media interview since being freed on Sept. 21 as part of a sprawling prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine.
Each man lost nearly 30 pounds during the ordeal, they said, suffering injuries most evident in the red and purple welts still present where their wrists were bound. Their account provides disturbing new insight into how Russia and its proxy forces in Ukraine treat those taken off the battlefield.
The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
Drueke and Huynh, who met in Ukraine, went to the country despite stern warnings from the U.S. State Department that taking up arms against Russian forces was unsafe and ill-advised. They joined the International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine, a force comprising hundreds of Americans, Europeans and other foreign nationals who responded to public entreaties from the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Drueke and Huynh said they are grateful to be alive and free, and to have had each other’s support and friendship through their captivity. They expressed no regret. Their goals now, they said, are to draw attention to Ukraine’s military needs, and raise awareness about another American veteran with whom they were imprisoned, Suedi Murekezi, who shared a cell with them for weeks but was not included in the prisoner swap. He’s among the handful of U.S. citizens detained by Russia for whom a diplomatic breakthrough has so far proved elusive.
“Alex and I never did this to become famous,” Huynh said. “We never wanted to become famous.”
One day of combat
Drueke, a U.S. Army veteran, and Huynh, who served in the Marines, said they were compelled to act after seeing images, early in the war, of Ukrainian families fleeing their homes as Russian forces leveled cities in their savage but ultimately failed bid to seize the capital, Kyiv, and topple Zelensky’s Western-backed government.
Drueke had been living with family members in Tuscaloosa, Ala., after being diagnosed as a 100 percent combat disabled veteran with post-traumatic stress, he said. He’d grown enthusiastic about long-distance mountain hiking. Huynh, a California native, had moved to northern Alabama to be with his fiancee, taking community college classes and working as a delivery driver for O’Reilly Auto Parts.
Huynh left the United States on April 8 to join a humanitarian group helping in Ukraine, he said. Drueke left four days later, believing that his experience during the Iraq War and familiarity with Western weapons could prove helpful to Ukrainian forces, he said.
Within days, they signed contracts with the foreign legion in Lviv, in western Ukraine near Poland’s border, joining the same battalion and receiving AK-74 rifles for training far from the fighting. They had brought their own camouflage uniforms and other equipment.
Both adopted noms de guerre. Drueke was named “Bama,” in honor of his home state. Huynh went by “Hate,” a shortened version of “Reaper of Hate,” a moniker he used in online video games.
“It was kind of a satire name because I’m not really a hateful person,” Huynh said. “Quite the opposite.”
“We called him Care Bear,” Drueke interjected with a laugh.
The men decided that “their skills could be better applied elsewhere” in the war, and requested a release from the contract they had signed with their first unit, Drueke said. For the next few weeks, they traveled the country by bus and train in what they called “vacation mode,” meeting with Ukrainian military officials about possible opportunities and marveling as civilians returned to their homes in and around the capital.
With time running out on their 90-day visas, they connected in Kyiv with a representative from Task Force Baguette, a military unit affiliated with the foreign legion that included French soldiers and other Westerners. The unit promised a Ukrainian military contract, allowing them to stay in the country and fight. This time, they were sent east and issued Czech-made CZ 208 rifles, to a base close to Russia’s border.
Their first mission, on June 9, would be their last.
That morning, the unit left Kharkiv in a pickup truck and two small sport-utility vehicles, heading north. Their assignment was to launch small drones, watch for Russian military forces and report what they saw, Drueke said.
But the unit was ambushed, and in the ensuing firefight everyone scattered, the Americans said. Drueke, Huynh and their team leader began searching for a machine-gunner and sniper who’d gone missing, only to learn that other members of the unit had taken their vehicles — and most of their food and water — and returned to base without them, Drueke said.
A representative for Task Force Baguette denied that Drueke and Huynh were left behind, saying the team scattered in five groups and that each had to make it back to safety on their own “as nobody knew what happened to the others.” He declined to elaborate. In a tweet, the unit celebrated the Americans’ release, thanking them for their service andcalling Drueke and Huynh “heroes.”
Drueke and Huynh declined to detail the precise location or nature of their capture, but acknowledged opening fire during the ambush. After they were taken into custody, they were stripped of their gear and weapons, and bound. As they crossed the border into Russia, Drueke said, their captors noted their new location, slugged them in the gut, and said “Welcome to Russia.”
The Americans were blindfolded for most of the next few days, they said. Occasionally, their captors would take the blindfolds off, allowing them to catch a glimpse of their surroundings. The Russians hid their faces behind tan balaclavas.
The camp, the Americans said, was a “tent city,” with six or seven prisoners of war held in each tent, Huynh said. Twin chain-link fences and barbed wire surrounded the compound.
The interrogations there, Drueke said, were “horrible.” The Russians appeared to doubt that they were rank-and-file members of a Ukrainian military unit. They asked Drueke and Huynh repeatedly if they were with the CIA, the Americans recalled. They ordered them onto their hands and knees, leaving them like that until their feet grew numb. If they moved, they were beaten, they recalled. At night, Drueke and Huynh were forced to remain on their feet for hours at a time to prevent them from sleeping.
“They really thought that we had been sent by our government, or had a large amount of government support,” Drueke said. “They really wanted to make sure we weren’t lying about that — and they had their ways of doing that.”
Most of the prisoners appeared to be Ukrainian, the Americans said. One who spoke English appeared to possibly be a British national. In the Sept. 21 prisoner swap, five British citizens also were freed, along with individuals from Morocco, Sweden and Croatia, more than 200 Ukrainians, 55 Russian troops and a close acquaintance of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Four days later, the Americans were on the move again, they said, taken to a black site detention center in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, where Russian separatists have power. The prisoners traveled for hours with bags over their heads, the Americans said, and swapped vehicles four times.
Drueke realized Huynh was with him only because he was tossed on top of him in one of the vehicles, prompting Huynh to respond with an “ouch” that Drueke recognized, he said. In such a dire situation, it was a relief.
Inside the black site
Their treatment worsened at the next location, they said.
Most of the detainees were kept in a cold basement divided into tiled cells, each about 5 feet long and 2 feet wide, Huynh recalled. They received a loaf of bread each day, along with water that often appeared to be contaminated. Huynh said he could hear screams — and cries of pain — as interrogations were conducted.
“That was one of the worst parts,” Huynh said. “Hearing people being hurt and not being able to do anything about it.”
Upstairs, a slightly larger room was used for solitary confinement. Huynh spent the first two days there before Drueke was put there for several weeks. About 80 songs of popular music, including from the rapper Eminem and the German metal band Rammstein, were pumped into the room on rotation for days, they said, shattering the peace but allowing them to mark the passage of time.
“They really, really kept us separate there,” Drueke said. “There were times where I would go days without hearing anything about Andy, and a lot of times I was, like, ‘Man, they killed him.’ ”
Beatings continued, which some of their captors seeming to relish dispensing more than others. A British man, Paul Urey, suffered beatings at the same facility and died there, Drueke and Huynh said. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced Sept. 7 that the Ukrainian government had recovered Urey’s body and that it had “signs of possible unspeakable torture.”
Many of the questions posed by interrogators seemed nonsensical, asking the Americans to identify photographs of people they did not know and detail events in which they had no involvement. One of the men spoke near-fluent English, while another knew onlysome, Drueke said. He believes they were Russian intelligence officials.
In the upstairs room, Drueke and Huynh each were ordered to make phone calls to seemingly random organizations in the United States, many not equipped to help them.
At one point, the captors told Drueke to call the Veterans Crisis Line, a service that provides mental health support to American military personnel after they leave the service. Drueke said he tried to dissuade them from doing it because it made no sense, but his captors insisted.
“They look at me and go, ‘You are a veteran. This is a crisis!’ ” Drueke recalled, imitating their accent.
Many of the phone calls went nowhere, getting lost in a maze of telephone switchboards, voice-mail boxes and Americans who appeared to question whether the pleas for help were legitimate. But a representative on the crisis hotline offered Drueke numbers for the State Department and another federal agency, possibly the Federal Protective Service, a law enforcement outfit affiliated with the Department of Homeland Security. Someone picked up on the second number, Drueke said, and they took his information and promised to help. It was a glimmer of hope.
A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the agency, said it takes seriously its commitment to assist U.S. citizens overseas, with U.S. diplomatic facilities putting after-hours duty officers on staff to deal with life-or-death emergencies.
“When U.S. citizens are being held in active war zones, it is impossible to provide in-person assistance,” the official said. “Regardless of the challenges, we make every effort to provide assistance to U.S. citizens and their families.”
The captors, who werearmed, ordered Drueke and Huynh to appear in propaganda interviews that appeared on Russian state media, and observed as they were recorded, Drueke said. In one published June 17, they expressed frustration with corruption in the Ukrainian military and warned other Americans to “think twice” about joining the war effort. Drueke said it still bothers him that he had to say such things.
‘I actually prayed for death’
The Americans, along with several other prisoners, were moved again about four weeks later, Drueke and Huynh said. Joining them was Murekezi, a U.S. Air Force veteranwho was sent to the black site after being detained in the southern city of Kherson in June. He had been living and working in Ukraine when Russia invaded, and declined to leave the country. Russian-backed separatists abducted him and accused him of a hate crime, said Sele Murekezi, Suedi’s brother, who lives in Minnesota.
There were no beatings at the next facility, but conditions were still abysmal, the Americans said. Bedbugs gnawed at their skin, leaving the walls of their cell streaked with blood, Huynh said. His arms and back remained heavily scarred by the insects more than a week after he was released.
The Americans had no idea that a prisoner swap was under discussion, and questioned if it was true even after they were removed from their cells and told they were going home. Their hands and eyes were bound excruciatingly tight with packing tape for their flight to a small Russian airstrip, in circumstances that they described as agonizingly painful but declined to detail fully.
“For me personally, it was the absolute worst,” Drueke said. “I realized a lot of times throughout that I could die, or that I was close to death, or that I probably was going to die. But that was the only time that I actually prayed for death.”
When they landed, they were greeted by Saudi medical personnel. They were whisked from there to Riyadh, where they met with State Department personnel and called loved ones.
The two men are still receiving medical care. Both have numbness in their hands, a possible symptom of nerve damage, they said. Drueke believes he may have cracked four ribs. Huynh is struggling with short-term memory loss and said that his mind “deteriorated” in captivity.
The pair are interested in helping the U.S. government by relating their experiences at the hands of Putin’s forces, they said. Other Americans, including WNBA star Brittney Griner and Marine Corps veteran Paul Whelan, are incarcerated inside Russia on what the Biden administration considers bogus criminal convictions unrelated to the war.
“It sounds trite, but we were given a second chance on life,” Drueke said. “I feel like our experiences, if we handle them the right way, we potentially have a lot to give the world.”