KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Paul Whelan behind bars in Russia
Fans and supporters around the world celebrated when WNBA star Brittney Griner was recently released from a Russian prison, but David Whelan admits he felt hopeless when his brother, Paul, was not on the plane home with her. For the past four years, his twin brother has been held in a Russian work camp, and the family hoped he would return with Griner.
"We saw Trevor Reed come home, and Paul didn't come home. We saw Brittney Griner come home, and Paul didn't come home. You start to wonder, 'How many more shots is the U.S. government going to be able to take, and when will the Russian government, if ever, decide that they have been given what they want in order to release Paul?'" David Whelan tells PEOPLE. "It's hard to keep up your optimism, your hope for year after year, after year."
David, a 52-year-old law librarian in San Diego, reads Russian news every day, searching for something to help his brother's case.
"I get up every day to try and bring Paul home," he says. "There's never really a time of the day that I'm not thinking about Paul's case."
Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS/ZUMA Brittney Griner during her detention in Russia
The last time David spoke to his twin was in October 2018. Another former Marine had asked Paul to come help at his wedding to a Russian woman. Paul was hesitant to go, David remembers, worrying about leaving their elderly parents in Michigan — their mother had recently slipped on ice.
"He was concerned about them, he wasn't at all concerned about himself," says David. "In hindsight, we realize now that he was really the one who was going to be in danger, not them."
A former U.S. Marine, Paul had traveled to Russia a number of times. "He hadn't wanted to go back to Russia, he'd already been to Russia that year just to see a friend," David remembers. "But he went to help his friend."
"He's a good person. He's a good friend to a lot of people," David adds.
Paul was handed a USB drive by a Russian friend at a Moscow Hotel on Dec. 28, 2018. And before he even looked at it, he'd been arrested and charged with espionage, his brother says.
"The case was tried in secret, so the evidence was never actually shown to anybody," his brother says. Paul is now in a Russian labor colony.
Maxim Grigoryev/TASS/ZUMA Press
Paul calls his parents — now ages 85 and 83 — every day around 1 p.m. If he doesn't call, they worry more.
"When those calls come, it's not like you can just talk about, 'How's your day at work? What are you having for dinner?' That sort of stuff. You're talking about, 'How do we get you food? What sort of medicine do you need right now?' It's always about the business of staying alive," David says.
His brother is "undergoing daily peril, daily torment," David says. "He's woken up every two hours every night because they consider him a flight risk."
David says his brother is lucky, in a way, because he has three siblings at home helping him and fighting for his release. Their other brother handles Paul's finances, David scours Russian news and does media interviews (he wrote a guidebook for other families), and their sister makes regular trips to Washington, D.C., meeting with legislators to help bring their brother home.
"That led to, I think, three Senate and House resolutions for his release. She obviously has then started lobbying into the State Department and other agencies to try and get his release. And she's been fortunate enough to speak twice now with President Biden," David says.
"It's been a lot of talking to people who can help Paul to get free, because it's really a government issue, it's not terrorists — although the Russian government sometimes acts like it," he continues. "But the only people who can release Paul are the Russian government, and the only people who can persuade the Russian government to do it are the U.S. government. So we've spent a lot of time trying to get their attention."
Jack Gruber-USA TODAY/Sipa USA
The Whelans are not the only family lobbying lawmakers, and pleading for help, in bringing their loved ones home.
"It's hard," David says. "There are dozens and dozens of American families who have a wrongfully detained loved one, like Paul."
For example, Trevor Reed's parents and sister fought tirelessly to bring Reed home — meeting with legislators and spending their retirement savings on Russian lawyers.
Reed, 31, is also a former U.S. Marine who served as a presidential guard. He got drunk at a party, and got sick on the ride home. When the women driving him home couldn't physically get him back in the vehicle, they asked police for help, Jonathan Franks, a spokesperson for the Reed family tells PEOPLE.
Instead, Reed was arrested and charged with endangering the life and health of Russian police officers. In July 2020, Reed was sentenced to nine years in prison.
Reed was taken captive on Aug. 15, 2019, and held for 985 days. He returned home to the U.S. on April 27 of this year.
"His first words on the plane were, 'Where's Paul?'" says Franks, a crisis management consultant and spokesman and strategist for the Bring Our Families Home Campaign. Instead of focusing on himself, and healing, Reed dove into trying to bring others — like Paul Whelan — home.
"I have never been told by a client before, 'The goal is not for me to get better. The goal is for me to make a difference for all these other hostages, because I came home first.' He has just been absolutely driven. I hear from him every day about what we can do to bring more people home," says Franks.
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"We have to go back and get Paul Whelan, whatever it takes," Franks adds. "We've got to get him back."
David says he's holding out hope that his parents are still alive when his brother is released. "I just hope to say, 'Welcome home.'"