Hartselle man in Ukraine missing
By Eric Fleischauer
For the Enquirer
A Hartselle man who headed to Ukraine in April to assist in the war with Russia has not been heard from in a week and, according to several news reports, is one of two Alabamians who may have been captured by Russian troops in a battle last Thursday near Kharkiv, Ukraine.
Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, a U.S. Marine veteran, in April flew to Krakow, Poland, in a successful effort to get to Ukraine.
U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, on Wednesday said he was seeking more information.
“According to Huynh’s family, they have not been in contact with him since June 8, 2022, when he was in the Kharkiv area of Ukraine,” a statement from Aderholt’s office said. “As you can imagine, his loved ones are very concerned about him. My office has placed inquires with both the United States Department of State and the Federal Bureau of Investigation trying to get any information possible.”
Huynh’s fiancée, Joy Black, lives in the Lawrence County portion of Trinity. The two were engaged in March and plan to marry upon his return from Ukraine.
The U.S. State Department said it was looking into reports that Russian or Russian-backed separatist forces in Ukraine had captured at least two American citizens. If confirmed, they would be the first Americans fighting for Ukraine known to have been captured since the war began Feb. 24, according to The Associated Press.
“We are closely monitoring the situation and are in contact with Ukrainian authorities,” the department said in a statement. It declined further comment, citing privacy considerations.
John Kirby, a national security spokesman at the White House, said Wednesday that the administration wasn’t able to confirm the reports about missing Americans, according to The AP.
“We’ll do the best we can to monitor this and see what we can learn about it,” he said.
He warned Americans not to go to Ukraine.
“Ukraine is not the place for Americans to be traveling,” he said.
Also missing is Alexander John-Robert Drueke, 39, of Tuscaloosa, who according to a CNN report Wednesday was in a unit with Huynh fighting under the command of Ukraine’s 92nd mechanized brigade on June 9, near the town of Izbytske. Izbytske is about 5 miles from the Russian border and 25 miles northeast of Kharkiv.
The CNN report relied on statements from a man who CNN said was acting in Ukraine as the team sergeant. He declined to be identified for security reasons but provided CNN with photos of the Alabama men’s passports and their entry stamps into Ukraine.
According to the CNN source, Drueke and Huynh went missing during the June 9 battle, and they were not located in subsequent search missions. A post on a Russian propaganda channel on Telegram the following day claimed two Americans had been captured near Kharkiv.
The CNN source said the battle was “absolute chaos,” with a Russian tank firing on the Ukrainian troops from 30 to 40 yards away as Russian infantry advanced on their position.
In a Facebook post Wednesday, Darla Black, Joy Black’s mother, stressed that there had been no confirmation that Huynh and Drueke had been captured.
“They are missing. Nothing else is officially confirmed,” she wrote. “We are in touch with all levels of our government and everyone has been very responsive, and there is a lot of attention and energy going into locating our loved ones.
“We are also in constant contact with the Drueke family. Anything beyond that, at this point, is speculation. Please keep Andy, Alex, and all of their loved ones in prayer. We just want them to come home.”
In an interview with The Decatur Daily shortly before his departure in April, Huynh said he felt a need to help soon after the war began.
“I know it wasn’t my problem, but there was that gut feeling that I felt I had to do something,” Huynh said. “Two weeks after the war began, it kept eating me up inside and it just felt wrong. I was losing sleep. … All I could think about was the situation in Ukraine.”
He finalized his decision to go to Ukraine when he read that young Ukrainians were being drafted to fight in the war.
“Right when they turned 18, they were forced to enlist in the military to defend their homeland,” Huynh said. “Honestly, that broke my heart. I would say that is probably the moment where I decided that I have to do something.”
Huynh said one of the reasons he joined the Marines was so that others “didn’t have to.” He said he was willing to risk his life defending the citizens of Ukraine.
“I made my peace about it a couple of weeks ago,” Huynh said in April.
Motivated by faith
Huynh’s church, Trinity Free Presbyterian Church, assisted him in finding contacts in Poland that would help him get to Ukraine. Joy and Darla Black are also members of the church.
Myron Mooney, pastor of Trinity Free Presbyterian Church, said the church and the Black family have been increasingly concerned over the last few days. Huynh regularly contacted Joy Black while in Ukraine, but the last contact he made was June 8. In that contact he said he would be unavailable for two to three days while on a mission.
Mooney said the church has been praying for Huynh and would be doing so Wednesday night at a prayer meeting. “We are going to be praying for Andy as well as the whole Black family.”
“It’s obvious this brings on anxiety because the Russians … may not be such nice people. We know that there are such things as torture applied to prisoners of war and that causes concern,” Mooney said.
Huynh enlisted in the Marines when he was 19 years old and served for four years, none in active combat, including two years on a base in Okinawa, Japan. He achieved the rank of corporal.
Mooney said Huynh is disciplined and diligent, possibly due in part to his Marine service, but that his military experience was not his primary motivator in heading for Ukraine.
“I felt unworthy to even provide counsel for this young man,” the pastor said Wednesday. “He told me, ‘Christ came to give himself to deliver us from eternal suffering, so why should I not be willing even to give my life for the relief of people suffering in this world?’ I found that extremely admirable. I was just in awe of that young man.
“I believe the Lord will help him. His trust was in the Lord so I just pray that the Lord will continue to strengthen his faith in whatever he has to face.”
Mooney said a church in Poland welcomed Huynh upon his arrival there and even held an English-language service before Huynh and others left for Ukraine.
Huynh was born and raised in Orange County, California, to Vietnamese immigrants and moved to Hartselle two years ago to be closer to his fiancée, whom he had been dating long distance.
Mooney said Huynh was living in a Hartselle house owned by the Black family and helping to take care of Joy Black’s grandmother, who resides in Hartselle. Huynh was finishing his second semester at Calhoun Community College, where he majors in robotics, when he left. Mooney said he also worked at an auto parts store.
The Daily Telegraph, a United Kingdom publication, on Wednesday reported that Huynh and Drueke were volunteering with a regular Ukrainian army unit.
The Telegraph cited an unnamed comrade of the Alabama volunteers.
The source said he, Huynh and Drueke were part of a 10-man squad in Izbytske after receiving bad intelligence that the town was clear of Russian troops. Russians approached them with two T72 tanks, multiple BMP3 armored fighting vehicles and about 100 infantry.
According to The Telegraph’s source, Huynh and Drueke manned a rocket-propelled grenade launcher while the rest of the squad took defensive positions and set anti-tank mines.
“Everybody took cover waiting for one of the tanks to hit the anti-tank mine, but Alex and Andy saw a BMP3 coming from another direction through the woods and realized that it would kill most of us,” the source said. “They opened fire and took it out with their first shot.”
The shot drew the attention of one of the tanks, which fired in their direction. The Telegraph’s source said he believed the shell missed them, but the blast may have left them unconscious.
Search missions on the ground and with drones failed to find the two men’s remains, leading to the conclusion they had been captured. The source said his suspicions grew when the Russian Telegram post reported it had “taken hostage 10-20 Ukrainian soldiers and also today two American mercenaries” near Kharkiv.
The Telegraph’s source said Huynh and Drueke were the only two Americans fighting in the area.
Two captured British military volunteers and one Moroccan were sentenced to death last week as “mercenaries” by the pro-Russian breakaway state of the Donetsk People’s Republic, according to The AP. The Russian military has said it considers foreigners fighting with Ukraine to be mercenaries and claims they are not protected as combatants under the Geneva Convention.
U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Illinois, tweeted that the Americans “have enlisted in the Ukrainian army, and thus are afforded legal combatant protections. As such, we expect members of the Legion to be treated in accordance with the Geneva convention.”
He was commenting on a tweet sent earlier Wednesday by Task Force Baguette, a group of former U.S. and French servicemen, saying that two Americans fighting with them were captured a week ago, according to The AP. The group said Ukrainian intelligence confirmed the information.
Early in the war, Ukraine created the International Legion for foreign citizens who wanted to help defend against the Russian invasion.
Drueke signed up for the U.S. Army after 9/11 and saw active service in Iraq.
“We know that this whole situation did not take God by surprise,” Mooney said. “Not a sparrow falls to the ground without His care. We believe that every particular about Andy cannot happen without the direct allowance of almighty God. We believe that God has given to His people the privilege of prayer to move the very hand that moves all of the affairs of the world.”