Two U.S. veterans were reportedly captured by Russian troops in Ukraine last week, with their families and lawmakers now working to find out what happened and whether they are in Russian custody.
The U.S. State Department confirmed that it is aware of media reports that two American citizens and veterans who were volunteers in Ukraine have been captured.
Military.com, in speaking to government officials and family members, has been able to confirm that both men, Alexander Drueke, 39, and Andy Huynh, 27, were veterans who traveled to Ukraine in April. Their families now say both have since gone missing.
The Telegraph first reported that a pair of American volunteers with a regular Ukrainian army unit were taken prisoner near the city of Kharkiv.
The reports of their capture come on the heels of the news that two captured British volunteers in Ukraine were sentenced to death by a high court in the Russian-backed Donetsk People's Republic. Both British and U.N. officials sharply condemned those sentences.
Lois Drueke, Alexander's mother, told Military.com that her son is an Army veteran, left the military as a staff sergeant, and volunteered to train Ukrainians starting in April.
Local media in Huynh's home state of Alabama reported that he was a Marine veteran who left to fight in Ukraine in April after seeing images of Ukrainian teenagers battling Russian forces.
The Army and Marine Corps confirmed the service of the two veterans. Drueke was a "chemical operations specialist" with a deployment to Iraq and one to Kuwait. He was in the Army Reserve for 12 years, according to the service. Huynh was an “engineer equipment operator” who left the Marines after four years at the rank of corporal. His last duty assignment was Camp Pendleton, California, according to the service.
Congressman Robert Aderholt, R.-Ala., released a statement saying that Huynh's family reached out to his office after not hearing from him "since June 8, 2022 when he was in the Kharkiv area of Ukraine."
'Going Dark' for a Day or Two
Drueke's mother said that her son left the U.S. in April for Ukraine without intending to join any specific volunteer group and emphasized that he went to train, not fight in any "military capacity."
"He met up with some other Americans that had been traveling together searching for a unit that could use their expertise in training," Lois Drueke said. "He was not there to fight. He was just there to train."
"Alex did not reenlist after his second tour in Iraq," she added. "He came home with severe PTSD, and he has been searching for a purpose in life."
She continued, "And when this happened in Ukraine, he studied the situation for quite a while and finally said, 'I've got the ability and the knowledge to help train the Ukrainian soldiers.'"
Lois Drueke said the last time she spoke to her son was over text on June 8, when he said that he'd be "going dark" for a day or two -- the same day that Huynh's family told their congressman they last heard from their son.
"On June 13, one of those close friends called me and said that they had been out on a mission and that it had gone bad," Lois Drueke said. "Everyone made it back to camp except Alex and the soldier that I knew only as 'Care Bear,' because they all use code names." She said she later learned that the other volunteer was Huynh.
Drueke's mom said she was contacted by someone going by the name of "Pip" who claimed to be in her son's volunteer unit. Pip told her that her son was missing and presumed captured based on an "intercepted Russian communique that talked about having captured two Americans near the area where Alex and Andy went missing," she said.
Lois Drueke gave Military.com the contact info for "Pip," who responded to an inquiry via an encrypted communication app. Pip said he was also a U.S. military veteran but declined to provide his name, and Military.com could not independently confirm his identity or his claims. Pip said that the mission "gone bad" occurred on June 9 and sent Military.com a Telegram message of the alleged Russian communication claiming the capture of two Americans and a map of the area that the American volunteers were allegedly operating in northeast of Kharkiv. Military.com did confirm that Lois Drueke received the information she relayed about the two Americans from this individual.
She added that she has been in contact with the State Department and the Red Cross.
Staff from the offices of Sens. Richard Shelby and Tommy Tuberville, both R-Ala., and Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., said that they were aware of Drueke's situation and were working to assist the family. An aide from Sewell's office noted that they haven't been able to confirm details of Drueke's disappearance or whether he has been captured. They also noted that they've been in touch with Aderholt, who has been advocating for Huynh and his family.
Aderholt's statement noted that his office has reached out to the State Department and the FBI for more information. The State Department, in its statement, said that it is closely monitoring the situation and is in contact with Ukrainian authorities.
"I am so proud of him," Drueke's mother said. "He said 'Mom, if I die over there, I have died doing something I truly believe is a good thing; I'm over there for purpose, and it'll be a warrior's death. Just know that I did what I believed was right to do. I believe that I am helping to save American lives, not just Ukrainian lives.'"
The Law of War
Military.com has previously spoken to experts who explained that volunteering to serve in Ukraine's foreign legion is risky because Russia has expressed an unwillingness to abide by the laws of armed conflict.
Claire Finkelstein, the founder and academic director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law, told Military.com in an email Wednesday that, assuming a former U.S. service member was taking orders from the Ukrainian military, wearing their uniforms, and carrying their arms openly, they would be "entitled to full POW treatment under the Geneva Conventions."
"This means among other things that they have 'combatant immunity,' and thus cannot be punished or held criminally liable for joining the fight," she added.
However, the reports of the two men's capture come less than a week after death sentences were handed down to two British men who were captured by the Russian-backed Donetsk People's Republic while fighting for Ukraine. The U.K.'s Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, called the sentences "a sham judgment with absolutely no legitimacy" in a statement issued Thursday, while asserting both men were "prisoners of war."
Finkelstein pointed out that, "from statements the Russians have made, there is already a suggestion that Russia will not accord foreign fighters POW treatment and will be unlikely to respect their human rights and the law of armed conflict."
Russia's position on the volunteers has been clear: It considers them mercenaries rather than combatants.
"None of the mercenaries the West is sending to Ukraine to fight for the nationalist regime in [Kyiv] can be considered as combatants in accordance with international humanitarian law or enjoy the status of prisoners of war," Russian defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in March, according to TASS, Russia's state-run news agency.
"Any mistreatment of the U.S. servicemen or a decision to execute them -- which Russia is threatening -- would be a violation of the law of armed conflict and a violation of the Geneva Conventions," Finkelstein said, though she is quick to note that invoking the conventions could put the U.S. government in an awkward position.
"The U.S. has a doleful track record when it comes to respecting the law of war in the treatment of wartime prisoners."
Editor's Note: After publication, the Army confirmed Drueke's service, but said that he had served 12 years in the Army Reserve rather than the eight Lois Drueke had described to Military.com. The Army also said that he deployed twice, once to Iraq and once to Kuwait, rather than two deployments to Iraq that Mrs. Drueke described to Military.com, though it is unclear whether Alex Drueke entered Iraq as part of his Kuwait deployment. In addition, after publication, the Marine Corps confirmed Huynh's service. The article has been updated accordingly.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.