“It was very unfortunate how it played out, but just everything went wrong,” and the two men found themselves facing a battalion where a firefight broke out, he said. They evaded capture for eight hours after running through thick woods where they dodged active drones and land mines they said. Eventually, they said they were surrounded, ordered to their knees, their hands bound, and bags thrust over their heads. “We were pretty darn sure they were going to execute us right then and there,” Drueke said.
Both men were moved to outposts until they ended up in a “black site,” where they said they were interrogated, beaten, deprived of sleep and forced for hours to sit blindfolded, on their knees, and with their hands across their necks. Drueke’s ribs were forcibly cracked.
What kept them going was thinking of their families. Huynh got engaged days before leaving while Drueke, who is not married, left behind an extended family and his dog, Diesel. While imprisoned, they said their sole objective was to look out for the other person.
“We were bonded for life,” Drueke said. “My mission was to keep Andy alive, and his mission was to keep me alive. And that’s all it was.”
The men spent 105 days in captivity before their release in late September, along with eight other foreign-born volunteer fighters from England and Canada and more than 200 Ukrainian soldiers. During their captivity, Russians forced them to make propaganda videos, give interviews to journalists sympathetic to Russia and contact different government agencies in the U.S., including the State Department. Drueke, who his captors chose as the duo’s spokesperson, was allowed to make frequent calls to his family in Tuscaloosa. Those calls, Drueke said, were made under duress.
“The guys beating me were in the room with me,” he said.
While being transported, their bodies were stacked on top of one another, they said, along with other prisoners, in the vehicle. In prison, they suffered solitary confinement. Their captors, they said, were wrongly convinced they were spies. “They wanted to believe that we were something special,” Huynh said.
Now home, the men are inseparable, as are their families, who bonded in their absence. They said they have no regrets and are open to returning to Ukraine to help rebuild once the conflict ends. Drueke said he believes their capture helped the Biden administration open channels to Ukraine that hadn’t been opened yet. “I hope that we had an impact,” he said. Civilians remain imprisoned in the same locations they were kept for more than three months.
“We feel guilty that we got traded and they are still there … That’s one of the worst feelings you can have,” Huynh said.
While Ukrainians will need continued humanitarian help for years, they said they’re convinced the country will emerge victorious over Russia.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin underestimated them … They are very united as a people. They are not going to give up, no matter what,” Drueke said.