Two US veterans who volunteered to join the effort against Russia in Ukraine have been reported missing by their families.
Alabama residents Alex Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh have not been heard from since last week, the families said Wednesday, and relatives said they are worried about what may have happened to the duo.
Ned Price, spokesman for the State Department, said Thursday that there were reports of a possible third American citizen missing while fighting in the country.
“I can’t speak to the specifics of that case,” Price said during a briefing. “Unfortunately, we don’t know the full details of that case.”
Drueke, 39, is a former US Army service member from Tuscaloosa who served two tours in Iraq, his family told NBC News.
His mother, Lois, said she got a phone call Monday from one of his friends, who told her that a mission had gone bad and that two men, including her son, did not return.
She said that in their most recent communication last Wednesday, her son wrote to her that he would be going “dark” for a few days. She wrote back: “Stay safe. And I love you,” to which he replied: “I love you too,” she said, fighting back tears. She has not heard from him since.
Lois Drueke said her son was not in Ukraine to fight, but was there in more of an advisory capacity as a “civilian with army training,” so she did not know why he was included on the mission.
“When he saw what was happening in Ukraine, he said, ‘Mom, I have to go and help train those soldiers so that Putin can’t get the confidence that he can just roll over Ukraine and other countries, because eventually he’ll tackle us,’” she said.
“’And I feel like if we can stop him there in Ukraine, then I’m helping to keep Americans safe,’” Lois Drueke recalled her son saying of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
She expressed fears the pair had been captured but said that it had not been verified. NBC News reached out to the Kremlin, as well as the Russian defense and foreign ministries for comment.
Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Thursday that Washington had not yet contacted the ministry in connection with the media reports about “two American mercenaries detained in the suburbs of Kharkiv,” the state news agency Ria reported.
Lois Drueke said the family doesn’t know if Drueke was captured, and it’s possible he and Huynh were still “out there evading the enemy.” The possibility that he is in Russian custody has her worried, she said, but she knew Ukraine and the US government were actively searching for the pair.
“If worst comes to worst, I know he was doing something he truly believed was good and noble,” she said, her voice breaking again.
US officials have been in touch with the Ukrainian government as well as other non-governmental organizations in the region as they monitor the situation, Price said. There has been no intelligence that the missing Americans are in Russian custody, Price noted.
“At this moment, we have seen the open press reports, the same reports that you have all seen, but we don’t have independent confirmation of their whereabouts,” Price said.
Rep. Terri A. Sewell, D-Ala., tweeted late Wednesday that Drueke’s mother reached out to her office after losing contact with her son, and that they are doing “everything in our power to assist in locating him and finding answers for his family.”
Meanwhile, Huynh’s family reached out to Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., said in a statement Wednesday. Aderholt said the family told him they had not been in contact with Huynh since June 8 when he was in the area of the city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine. He said Huynh, 27, volunteered to go fight with the Ukrainian army against Russia. “As you can imagine, his loved ones are very concerned about him,” Aderholt said.
Huynh is originally from Orange County, California, but had recently been living in the Alabama community of Hartselle and was engaged to be married, his fiancée’s brother, Zachary Polk, said.
“He met her online,” Polk said. “He’s from California. He’s a former US Marine. He came over here to Alabama, and joined our church, and met my sister after he got out.”
“He felt he needed to help them, so he went over there to see what help he could provide,” Polk said.
Darla Joy Black, the mother of Huynh’s fiancée, posted on Facebook that the pair were unaccounted for.
“Nothing else is officially confirmed,” she said. “Please keep Andy, and Alex, and all of their loved ones in prayer. We just want them to come home.”
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Wednesday he could not confirm the reports of the two missing Americans. He reiterated that the United States discourages Americans from going to Ukraine and fighting there.
“It is a war zone,” he said. “It is combat. And if you feel passionate about supporting Ukraine, there’s any number of other ways to do that, that are safer and just as effective. Ukraine is not the place for Americans to be traveling.”
Joe Cirincione, distinguished fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, DC, told NBC News that Americans who want to aid Ukraine, whether by fighting or helping to train its soldiers on how to use US-supplied weapons, should be allowed to go. But, he added, the incident highlights the risks created when they do.
“I am afraid that they are going to be used as pawns by the Russians now in their effort to try to get the US and the west to back off on sanctions. Any release of these Americans will undoubtedly be conditioned to American loosening of the sanctions on Russia,” Cirincione said.
Earlier Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Department of State said it was aware of the reports of two US captured citizens in Ukraine and was monitoring the situation closely.
US officials are in contact with the Ukrainian authorities, the spokesperson said, who declined to comment further, citing privacy considerations.
Ukraine put out a call early on in the war for trained fighters from around the world to volunteer and join its foreign legion.
Last week, two British citizens and a Moroccan, whom Russian officials have labeled “mercenaries,” were sentenced to death by pro-Moscow separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.