How 2 American Veterans Ended Up in Ukraine, Prisoners of Russian-Armed Militants
How 2 American Veterans Ended Up in Ukraine, Prisoners of Russian-Armed Militants
Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire'' played through the speakers on the vehicle that dropped Alex Drueke off at the bus transfer station. It wasn't the all-too-familiar version, but a Ukrainian rendition.
It was around Easter Sunday, and Drueke, then 39, was switching modes of transportation for the last leg of a journey in western Ukraine as a war was raging. He was far from his home in Alabama.
The bus was hot and stuffy, and the rumble of the old diesel engine threatened to drown out any conversation. The springs groaned under the weight of the 12-year Army veteran, several dozen other men clad in armor and gear, and a load of equipment.
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Within hours of stepping off that bus in western Ukraine, Drueke would meet Andy Huynh, a Marine Corps veteran who had also journeyed from Alabama. The two Americans were among the foreign fighters drawn to the country to stand side by side with Ukrainians in their underdog war against Russia and its brutal invasion that began in February.
Huynh, 27, had never deployed during his military service. He left his fiancee's home in the U.S. on April 8 after being connected with a pastor in Ukraine, according to family members.
The fates of the two veterans would be tied together as they sought out a war that the world has condemned and the U.S. has refused to enter. It is a saga that eventually led Drueke and Huynh to a tiny village near Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, a stone's throw from the border with Russia. There, just short of two months after meeting, they would become the first Americans to be captured during the war.
"A week ago, our team ended up isolated in the middle of a Russian offensive," the men's unit -- a sort of militia sanctioned by the Ukrainian government -- later posted in a June 15 tweet that notified the world of their capture.
Drueke and Huynh are now being held by the Russian-backed Donetsk People's Republic, a separatist group fighting the Ukrainian government in the west, with their ultimate fate unknown. The group handed down death sentences earlier this year for two British men captured while fighting for Ukraine, and Russian state media has hinted at the death penalty for the two Americans.
In an effort to trace the journey Drueke and Huynh took from their homes to Ukraine, Kharkiv and, ultimately, into the hands of the separatists, Military.com spoke with more than a dozen people, including volunteers in Ukraine, foreign legion officials, friends and family members.
What emerges is an often murky tale filled with colorful characters, conflict, secrecy and unclear motivations, all set in a war zone where facts are scarce.
While in Ukraine, the two men moved between at least three different units, including a company with the Ukrainian Foreign Legion, a regular Ukrainian army unit, and finally Task Force Baguette, which is a group of American and French fighters that appeared to be sanctioned by Ukraine's ministry of defense. This is their story.
'I Should Do This'
Alex Drueke's last message to his mom before his capture didn't strike her as odd or out of the ordinary. The text on June 8 said he'd be "going dark" for a day or two.
Before leaving for Ukraine, Alex warned that he might at times be offline for a few days but would be back in touch. It was the kind of assurance meant to calm the anxiety and spinning imagination of a parent whose child was heading into a country under siege.
"I wasn't unduly alarmed," Bunny Drueke told Military.com. "I said a quick prayer for his safety and went on about my business."
Bunny was used to -- as much as a mother can be -- seeing her son in harm's way. He had been fueled by a restless yearning to serve and belong that had played out over the previous two decades.
Twenty years ago, Drueke tried to direct his methodical and rational nature, along with a fiery will his mother lovingly labels stubbornness, into a career with the Army. He joined a year after the terrorist attacks in 2001. Bunny said he had wanted to enlist since he was a child, but 9/11 pushed him into uniform.
By 2004, the 22-year-old Drueke found himself deploying for the first time, headed to Kuwait.
Josh Meeker, an enlisted soldier at the time and friend of Drueke, told Military.com he remembered the young service member as a good guy who handled his business professionally. He characterized the deployment as relatively uneventful.
"But his second deployment," Meeker said, "may be another story."
Something changed after that next deployment to Iraq in 2008.
"Alex did not reenlist after his second tour," his mother told Military.com in June. "He came home with severe [post-traumatic stress disorder], and he has been searching for a purpose in life."
It is unclear whether the PTSD was the result of combat. His mother said Drueke received the medical diagnosis a couple years ago as he was getting treatment from Department of Veterans Affairs mental health facilities. He does not appear to have earned a Combat Action Badge, a commendation awarded to non-infantry soldiers who engage or are engaged by the enemy in direct combat, based on the collection of honors that appear on his uniform in his service photo.
Bunny described his job on that second tour as "the lead gunner there in Baghdad, so he was up in the turret on high alert, watching for potential danger and having to decide in a split second who was dangerous and who was safe."
"That just took a toll on him," she continued. "He has not been able to come off of that high alert."
It was clear to Alex's family that he was done with the Army after Iraq, but not necessarily a uniform or the purpose that came with it.
He floated through a string of jobs after the military -- a brief stint in law enforcement, some sales gigs. His Army friends and family noticed he went on nearly constant outdoor trips accompanied by his dog, Diesel.
That is, until January, when rumblings of a Russian invasion hung over Ukraine, permeated western media, and caught Drueke's attention. By the end of February, the rumblings had turned to artillery blasts in the capital Kyiv.
Within days of the invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a call to foreign nationals -- "friends of peace and democracy," as he put it -- to join the fight against the Russian invasion. The country would set up a foreign legion to structure the new force of thousands volunteering to help counter Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion.
Drueke left for Ukraine in mid-April, according to his family, quickly making his way into the country. His mother attributes the decision to a lifelong desire to do good. His comrades-in-arms see it as a bookend to Drueke's American military service -- train others, fight, belong.
"Sometimes, when you come home, there's a feeling you can never find in the civilian world that you found in the camaraderie you had when you're deployed or when you're in the military in general," said Dylan Hardwick, who served with Drueke in Kuwait. "And that's something I think a lot of people that were former service members struggled to always find in the civilian world."
Soon after arriving in the country, Drueke and a new comrade, Thomas Alva, were sitting on racks across from each other in a basement somewhere in western Ukraine, waiting for their next instructions.
"We both said, 'Yeah, you know, we had the skills, we had the mindset, we didn't have any attachments' … and he said, 'I was just kind of sitting there with the dog and said, I can do this,'" Alva recalled.
“And eventually that became 'I should do this.'”
"It kind of felt like we quit the services. ... We could have done more, we shouldn't have left. ... It was like a page unturned," Alva said.
Inside Ukraine, Inside the Legion
Alva was in the vehicle with Drueke as the Johnny Cash tune played over the stereo.
He was known to the men by the call sign "Vader." He was one of the first people Drueke met in Ukraine. Many fighters there choose to go by a nom de guerre, often meant to project an image of badassery and help with operational security.
In an interview with Military.com, Alva said that he first saw Drueke on the afternoon of April 19 at an International Legion processing location in Ukraine, just on the other side of the Polish border. According to him, the two men came in from different parts of Poland but ended up at the same place and quickly became friends.
"We were the only two Americans there at the time. ... We discovered that we had a lot in common," Alva recalled. "We were both older, single, no kids, no family. We both had dogs … and both of our mothers were taking care of dogs."
Alva served almost 15 years in the military, mostly as an active-duty Marine, but he left as a petty officer first class in the Navy Reserve, according to documents provided to Military.com.
As they rode together in the vehicle, they were bound for yet another Legion location in western Ukraine.
The pair would meet two more foreign fighters there: "Angel" and "Pip." Military.com will refer to them only by their call signs as both men are still in the country and fear being targeted by Russian forces.
Angel, a Canadian from Saskatchewan who is a Marine Corps veteran, said that "within a few minutes we were laughing and telling jokes." Pip was more of a mystery.
"We were all soldiers in our hearts and wanted to continue to serve and fight for the survival of the free world," Angel explained.
Drueke shared stories of home, his mother and his niece, while Angel talked about the wife and two kids he left at home. Meanwhile, according to Angel, Pip and Alva explained that they were both single, which made their decisions to join the war a little simpler.
Once the bus got to yet another International Legion location, the four men met Huynh, completing the group. The Marine veteran who now shares Drueke's fate as a captive had taken his own path into the country before ending up in 1st Battalion, Charlie Company -- the unit of the Legion all five would join for a brief period of time.
After his stint in the Marines, Huynh had moved to Alabama to be closer to a girl he'd met online while serving, Joy Black, who was finishing high school. Huynh slept on Black's brother's couch while she lived next door.
Huynh had taken an hourly job as a local delivery driver, according to Black's mother Darla. But when the war in Ukraine began, it instantly grabbed the Marine veteran's attention.
"Andy just felt such a great compassion for these people suffering, and he said he couldn't eat, he couldn't sleep, he was just overwhelmed by the feeling that he was being called to help," Darla said.
Huynh, who was known in Ukraine by the call sign "Hate," was a fireteam leader in Charlie Company, while Drueke was with a different squad but just a tent over, Angel recalled.
Angel said he used to tease Huynh during those days with the Legion "because he was a Hollywood Marine."
"I'm a Parris Island Marine," Angel said, alluding to the enduring rivalry between Marines who attend boot camp at the recruit depot in San Diego versus Parris Island in South Carolina.
The group "all hung out, ate together, and talked together, and trained together," Angel said. However, it would not last. By the end of the first week of May, the five men would start going their separate ways, mirroring a pattern of many foreign fighters who often changed missions or even left the country within days of arrival.
Searching for a Way to the Front
Drueke, Huynh, Angel and Pip volunteered to help replenish a unit that had suffered losses at the front in a bid to get into the thick of the fighting, according to Alva. The move was canceled at the last minute, but the four were committed to leaving the Legion anyway.
Alva said that they ultimately left due to a lack of confidence in the command. By May 5, "we signed our discharge papers, then they escorted us off this property," according to Angel. Volunteers often bounce between units seeking a chance to fight in specific areas or serve with fellow countrymen.
Military.com tried to verify the men's discharges with a spokesperson for the International Legion, a woman who goes by the call sign Mockingjay, but she would neither confirm nor deny their membership.
The men took a bus to the nearest town and got to a hotel, said Angel, recounting their break with the Legion. Alva had stayed behind, though he too would ask for a discharge days later.
"We get to eat pizza, have a few beers -- except for Hate," he said, referring to Huynh by his call sign. "I believe he said he was recently baptized."
Eventually, the four found a Ukrainian army unit that would take them, but the move was short-lived. Angel said that Pip left before the unit completed a background check. "I don't know if he was worried or what."
Drueke, Huynh and Pip all left the new unit on May 9 or 10, about a week after leaving the Ukrainian Legion, according to Angel.
After the three men departed -- and with two now held as captives -- much of what happened next relies on information solely from Pip. Other sources were reluctant to provide personal details and specific information for fear of being targeted by Russian forces.
Much of Pip's background remains a question mark. Those who knew him alluded to his prior military service, but they gave different descriptions of the branch, where he served and the nature of the service. Some also said they had a distrust of Pip.
One former member of a unit the men would join, who goes by "Doc Praning," said Pip worked as a cybersecurity expert in the military. Others such as Angel and Alva mentioned a stint in the Air Force, maybe in the '90s, some odd behavior, and conflicting stories.
Military.com could not independently confirm Pip's military service, but did see documentation purporting to show his real name and date of birth. The publication was also able to establish his connection to the two missing veterans, and much of the information their families received in the weeks after their capture was relayed by Pip.
Pip "kept on trying to join non-sanctioned groups," according to Angel, and it was Pip who may have played a role in bringing Drueke and Huynh to the unit, a move that ultimately resulted in the two veterans' capture.
The unit where they ended up was filled with fighters using code names. It seemingly existed in a gray area of the conflict with independent funding and leadership. There, the men would allegedly find themselves facing off against the Russian army.
Task Force Baguette
Task Force Baguette formed at the beginning of April, about two weeks before either of the now-captured veterans arrived in Ukraine, according to Doc Praning, who declined to provide Military.com with further identifying information for himself, citing security reasons.
Baguette is composed of both American and French nationals, hence the reference to traditional French bread. The size of the unit is unknown, but its Twitter page has posted pictures depicting about a dozen members.
Mockingjay, the Legion spokesperson, told Military.com that the unit operates under the control of the Ukrainian government. However, she also said that "I've seen them on Twitter. ... I can again tell you that these people are not talking for the Legion."
Western leaders, such as Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., an Air National Guard officer, have attested to the unit's legitimacy under the Ukrainian military and, in Drueke and Huynh's cases, protection under the Geneva Conventions.
At some point in April, Baguette began receiving the financial and logistical support of Hunter Ripley "Rip" Rawlings, a former Marine officer, author and, in his latest venture, founder of "Ripley's Heroes" -- a group that, according to its website, provides transportation, nonlethal aid and equipment to its beneficiaries, including Task Force Baguette.
The support from Ripley's Heroes appears to provide the group nonlethal supplies, but it is less clear where Baguette got lethal munitions.
A June 11 video, set to the theme song from the series "Band of Brothers," claims to show a member of Baguette loading a battery into a Javelin's command launch unit -- a U.S.-supplied tank-destroying missile.
By the end of May, Baguette was in need of more men. Doc Praning said that at least four members of the original team were leaving or had already left due to personal or family matters.
"That was about the time [Alex, Andy and Pip] were talking about joining the team," Praning told Military.com via Twitter direct messages. "I think by the time they arrived, two more of the [original] team just left."
Praning said Pip had been an original member of the team when it formed back at the beginning of April in Lviv, in western Ukraine. But at the time, Pip had been dropped by the commanding officer, partly out of concerns that he wouldn't be able to physically keep up with the team and partly because he was needed elsewhere.
Almost a month later, it appears that Pip was instrumental in getting the men a spot in his old unit. It was the task force's Twitter account that introduced Drueke and Huynh to the world for the first time, though only by their war names "Bama" and "Hate."
They tagged Rawlings, among other Twitter users, to help get the word out.
'Mission Gone Bad' and Fog
Drueke, Huynh and Pip joined Task Force Baguette sometime at the end of May or beginning of June -- the precise date is unclear. It was mere weeks before the June 15 announcement from the group publicly acknowledging their capture.
The three had traveled east to Kharkiv, though how is unclear.
Two days prior to that public announcement, Pip told the families that Drueke and Huynh had gone missing.
In his telling, they were captured by regular Russian forces during a "mission gone bad." The accounts of that mission vary. The Telegraph, a British newspaper that originally broke the story, interviewed an anonymous fighter who claimed the Russian force had 100 troops with mixed armor, including tanks.
"It's out there in the public that they were captured when they were actively fighting against Russian forces," Mockingjay told Military.com. "They didn't just walk across the road and give themselves up to the Russians -- that we know for sure."
In one account from a pro-Russian separatist blogger who claimed to have spoken to Drueke directly, the two were not captured by Russian regular forces at all, but Donetsk separatists.
Other major news outlets have published Pip's account of a battle, including details of a full-scale armored assault through a small village. However, given that these accounts come from one unverified source -- Pip -- there is no way for Military.com to verify their accuracy.
Military.com requested comment from Pip regarding the accuracy of the timeline of events that led to the three joining Baguette and the conflicting accounts of his military service. He said "you've gotten a lot of information wrong," but when pressed several times, declined to point to anything specifically incorrect. He also cited concerns for his safety.
"If you choose to listen to faulty information from others who may or may not have briefly known me then that's on your lack of journalistic integrity," Pip wrote in a response to Military.com, going on to accuse another source of being a drunkard.
What happens next to the two men currently in custody is as uncertain as the circumstances surrounding their capture.
They appear to be in the custody of the separatist Donetsk Republic and, if so, they are likely being held nearly 200 miles south of where they were initially captured. The state is one of two breakaway areas in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that have been fighting a war with the country's government since 2014 in an effort to join the Russian Federation. Troops there have not only received political and military backing from Russia, but Moscow also officially recognized the breakaway region just days before its invasion in February.
Since March, Russian officials have rejected the idea of Geneva Conventions protections for international volunteers in Ukraine. Russian state media has suggested the men be treated as stateless terrorists, citing recycled legal rationalizations used by the George W. Bush administration to justify moving prisoners to the facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The Drueke family said the Army veteran's captors have prompted him to tell his mother "several times" that they were anxious to begin negotiations for his release, a sign Russian leaders may be looking to leverage the Americans for potential gain.
Mockingjay underscored the Ukrainian government's official position that the two men are entitled to the protections for prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.
"They would be covered and protected because they were in uniform, they were openly carrying weapons, they were lawful combatants," she said.
The State Department, outside of confirming that it has seen images of the two veterans "reportedly" captured, has been largely silent. The families say it is working diligently behind the scenes, though.
The threat of a trial or worse still looms over the men.
His captors have allowed Drueke to call Bunny, and the Drueke family has been sharing details of those phone conversations with members of the media.
The family believes the calls to his mother were scripted or, at the very least, heavily moderated. During the calls, Bunny appeared to be doing her best to comfort Drueke, who said he was isolated.
Bunny's days now typically revolve around contact with her son -- leaving her telephone line open, waking up in the morning to check her phone for updates.
Joy Black, Huynh's fiancee, has taken an indefinite leave of absence from work. She and her mom try not to leave the house together just in case a call from Huynh comes through, though they haven't heard anything so far.
"We just work all day taking phone calls, making phone calls, doing interviews, looking up resources," Darla said. "Everything else in life is just on hold."