US veterans captured by Russian forces return to Alabama

The US military veterans returned home to Alabama after a prisoner exchange with Russia-backed separatists

Two U.S. military veterans who were fighting alongside Ukrainian forces and disappeared have officially made it home to Alabama after a prisoner exchange with Russian-backed separatists. 

Alex Drueke, 40, and Andy Huynh, 27, landed at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham on Saturday. The pair had gone missing June 9 in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine near the Russian border, and were released as part of a prisoner exchange. 

"Surreal. I still have chill bumps," an aunt of Drueke, Dianna Shaw, said. "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.

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Andy Huynh, far left, and Alex Drueke, right, are seen leaving Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Ala., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. The U.S. military veterans disappeared three months ago while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces. They were released earlier this week by Russian-backed separatists as part of a prisoner exchange.

Andy Huynh, far left, and Alex Drueke, right, are seen leaving Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Ala., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. The U.S. military veterans disappeared three months ago while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces. They were released earlier this week by Russian-backed separatists as part of a prisoner exchange. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

The families of the two men announced their release on Wednesday. The pair had previously landed at New York City's John F. Kennedy Airport before reaching Alabama. They were among the 10 prisoners released by Russian-backed separatists after a prisoner exchange mediated by Saudi Arabia.

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American's Andy Huynh, right, and Alex Drueke, left, chat as they arrive at the TWA Hotel on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022 in New York. The two U.S. military veterans who disappeared three months ago while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces were among 10 prisoners, including five British nationals, released this week by Russian-backed separatists as part of a prisoner exchange mediated by Saudi Arabia. 

American's Andy Huynh, right, and Alex Drueke, left, chat as they arrive at the TWA Hotel on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022 in New York. The two U.S. military veterans who disappeared three months ago while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces were among 10 prisoners, including five British nationals, released this week by Russian-backed separatists as part of a prisoner exchange mediated by Saudi Arabia.  (AP Photo/Andres Kudack)

"There are prisoners of war who have been held for months and years. There are people who have been detained wrongfully for years and for this to come about in three months is, just, unimaginable to me," Shaw added. "Even though I’m living it, it feels unimaginable, and I don’t want people to forget all the Ukrainians who are still being held."

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Andy Huynh, left, and Alex Drueke, far right, are seen hugging their loved ones after arriving at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Ala., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. The U.S. military veterans disappeared three months ago while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces. They were released earlier this week by Russian-backed separatists as part of a prisoner exchange.

Andy Huynh, left, and Alex Drueke, far right, are seen hugging their loved ones after arriving at Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Ala., Saturday, Sept. 24, 2022. The U.S. military veterans disappeared three months ago while fighting Russia with Ukrainian forces. They were released earlier this week by Russian-backed separatists as part of a prisoner exchange. (AP Photo/Kim Chandler)

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The pair had traveled to Ukraine on their own to battle alongside Ukrainian forces against Russia. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.