‘We Thought They Were Dead. They Never Made It Back’: Two American Fighters Captured by Russia in Ukraine

ukraine_ - Credit: Alexander Drueke/Facebook; Courtesy WAAYTV
ukraine_ - Credit: Alexander Drueke/Facebook; Courtesy WAAYTV

Two American volunteers fighting in Ukraine appear to have been captured by Russia last week, multiple sources tell Rolling Stone. Both men are U.S. military veterans and volunteered to fight with Ukraine’s International Territorial Defense Force, or foreign legion, according to the sources.

A foreign volunteer serving in the unit the two Americans were accompanying provided specific details about the incident that led to their capture during a battle near Kharkiv, in northeastern Ukraine, on June 9th. The volunteer spoke to Rolling Stone on condition that his name and nationality not be revealed. “Our team was isolated and ended up against artillery, tanks, and BMPs [armored vehicles],” the foreign fighter says.

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One part of the team engaged a BMP with an RPG-22 – a light anti-armor rocket launcher – in an effort to slow the Russian advance. But the tank following behind it fired on the Americans’ position, the source tells Rolling Stone.

“We thought they were dead,” the volunteer recalls. “Our team broke contact before we could be overrun. They [the two Americans] never made it back to Ukrainian lines.”

Video taken by the team of foreign volunteers of the fighting on June 9th shows intense combat in a densely wooded area.

The day after the battle, the volunteer says, a Ukrainian intelligence officer informed the unit that intercepted Russian communications claimed two Americans had been captured near Kharkiv.

The families of the men had been informed by a member of the volunteer group, and the U.S. government is aware of the situation, the volunteer says.

The U.K. Telegraph was the first outlet to identify the two Americans: They are Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27. The foreign volunteer, who initially would provide only the noms de guerre of the Americans, confirmed their identities once the information was made public.

Drueke — who uses the call sign “Bama” — was a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army, while Huynh — who uses the call sign “Hate” — was a four-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, the volunteer says.

In an email to Rolling Stone, an Army spokesperson confirmed that Drueke had served in the Army Reserve from September 2002 to October 2014 as a chemical operations specialist, completing his service at the rank of staff sergeant. Drueke deployed twice, once to Kuwait from December 2004 to December 2005 and a second time to Iraq from November 2008 to July 2009.

The Marine Corps did not respond to a request for Huynh’s service record in time for publication.

The Drueke family issued a statement consistent with the account provided by the volunteer. The family said Drueke’s mother “received a phone call from another member of the platoon in the early hours of Monday, June 13th to inform her of the skirmish and the search for the two missing Americans.”

“Reconnaissance on foot and by drone have not turned up signs of Drueke or the other American,” the statement said.

“This could mean they are in hiding, or it could mean they have been captured,” Drueke’s mother, Bunny Drueke, was quoted as saying in the statement.

After being informed about the intelligence intercepts, the Territorial Defense Force team has received no further information from either Ukrainian or American officials. “It’s been a week,” the volunteer says. “Who knows what the Russians are doing?”

When asked for information about the reported incident, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian defense ministry said only that he could neither confirm nor deny it at this time.

A separate U.S. government source with knowledge of the incident confirmed that Washington was working to locate the two men and — if they are indeed alive and in Russian hands — would attempt to secure their release. However, the source cautioned, Moscow would have little incentive to negotiate the quick release of any American prisoners.

Kharkiv, Ukraine, on April 27th, near where the two Americans were reportedly captured - Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)
Kharkiv, Ukraine, on April 27th, near where the two Americans were reportedly captured - Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

The U.S. State Department issued a statement acknowledging it was aware of the incident, but stopped short of confirming any details. “We are aware of unconfirmed reports of two U.S. citizens captured in Ukraine. We are closely monitoring the situation and are in contact with Ukrainian authorities. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We also once again reiterate U.S. citizens should not travel to Ukraine due to the active armed conflict and the singling out of U.S. citizens in Ukraine by Russian government security officials, and that U.S. citizens in Ukraine should depart immediately if it is safe to do so using any commercial or other privately available ground-transportation options.”

Thousands of foreigners from more than 55 countries have volunteered to defend Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian officials have said. In addition to taking part in the defense of Kyiv and counteroffensives surrounding Kharkiv, volunteers with Ukraine’s foreign legion are taking part in the defense of Severodonetsk, according to frontline reports from Radio Liberty, a U.S.-government-funded media outlet.

Rolling Stone is aware of at least seven other Americans — most of them former U.S. military — currently engaged in combat on the frontlines without having “officially” joined the foreign legion, ostensibly having traveled to Ukraine to “train and advise” local defense forces or provide medical assistance.

Ukrainian defense officials discourage this practice and urge foreigners hoping to get directly involved in the country’s defense to apply to the foreign legion through official channels, so that they can be vetted and approved before coming to Ukraine.

But in the chaos at the frontlines, numerous foreigners have been able to directly participate in hostilities by establishing relationships with local military contacts. Some of these individuals have never served in the military, have never experienced combat, and have never received specialized training suitable for a battlefield role. That the foreigners are there is a suitable enough qualification for some Ukrainian units.

The team that the two Americans were working with, however, was composed primarily of seasoned and experienced combat veterans from several countries, officially attached to a Ukrainian military unit via the foreign legion, the foreign volunteer says. He would not disclose whether the two Americans were accompanying the unit to advise, conduct medical assistance, or to fight.

One American has already been killed fighting for Ukraine. In April, Willy Joseph Cancel died while serving with the foreign legion, although the precise details surrounding his death remain unclear. Cancel, 22, had been court martialed in August 2020 for unspecified charges, and subsequently involuntarily separated from the U.S. Marine Corps. He had been working as a corrections officer in Tennessee before making his way to Ukraine in March.

At least three foreign nationals have recently been captured fighting for Ukraine, including two British and a Moroccan citizen, who were sentenced to death by pro-Russian officials in Donetsk. Aidan Aislin, Shaun Pinner, and Brahim Saadoun are set to face a firing squad, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported last week. Local officials for the Russian-backed breakaway state Donetsk People’s Republic claim that the men are criminals, and therefore are not entitled to the usual protections accorded to prisoners of war.

In the first weeks of the conflict, a spokesperson for Russia’s defense ministry, Igor Konashenkov, told state media outlet TASS that foreign “mercenaries” captured while fighting with Ukraine would not be treated as prisoners of war, saying “at best, they can expect to be prosecuted as criminals.”

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for information about the status of the two Americans. But on Russian state TV there were already discussions that the two Americans may face the death penalty.

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