How will Britney Greener cope with adjusting to life here? Former detainees offer clues.


Jessica Buchanan was on an elliptical trainer at her gym when the TVs started warning of news that nearly struck her with “dangerous relief.” Brittney Greener, the American basketball star imprisoned in Russia, was is released in exchange of prisoners.

Buchanan doesn’t know Greener. But the former aid worker, hostage by pirates in Somalia for 93 days a decade ago, was among the few who knew what Griner would face: joyous and stunning reunions with loved ones. Pressure from interview requests. A dawning understanding of the great efforts made by the people at home to secure her freedom. And ultimately the lonely realization that captivity leaves an imprint that never fades.

On December 11, the Biden administration defended against criticism the prisoner swap deal of WNBA star Brittney Greener for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. (Video: The Washington Post)

“When you watch these things happen and time drags on, you know exactly what it feels like,” said Buchanan, 43, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. After a person’s release, she added, “what happens is that everyone thinks everything is going to be okay from now on because you’ve been through it; you survived This is the honeymoon phase. What is at stake is what I call ‘survival, survival.'”

The experience of Greener, a celebrity whose cannabis-possession arrest became a high-profile geopolitical standoff, is unlike that of many other Americans wrongfully imprisoned or held hostage overseas. But whatever the circumstances, she is now a member of a small club no one wants to join, say ex-prisoners, bonded by the shared experience of stolen freedom and an often tumultuous reacquaintance with her.

As this unusual society has grown, some of its members have created advocacy organizations supporting hostages and their families. Some became foreign policy activists. Some withdraw from the public eye. Some rely privately on each other.

“What binds us all together is having your freedom and your human rights taken away in an instant,” said Sam Goodwin, who was imprisoned in Syria for two months in 2019 and has found fellowship with other former hostages.

Goodwin, 34, recently had lunch with Buchanan, whom he considers a friend. He also met in Washington this month with Jorge Toledo, one in six Americans and a permanent resident of the United States released from imprisonment in Venezuela in October.

Goodwin was arrested by Syrian forces as he neared the end of his mission to visit every country in the world — Syria was number 181 out of 193. He spent a month in solitary confinement and was hauled into court four times, he said. He had no idea anyone was helping him until 62 days later, Lebanese mediators helped free him and he was flown to Beirut – and faced his ecstatic parents and a sea of ​​cameras.

A day later, Goodwin returned to his childhood bedroom in St. Louis. High school friends who had seen him on the news stopped by. The sight of the trees pleased him after two months of seeing nothing but concrete. The presence of his four siblings and his parents comforted him.

Captivity deepened his tenacity and gratitude, Goodwin said, and gave him a new focus in life: He is now a doctoral student studying the Syrian conflict at Johns Hopkins University and is affiliated with the nonprofit Help for hostages around the world. He does not bring his arrest in Syria to the first meeting. But it pours out when meeting other hostages.

“I feel completely comfortable asking them any questions because I come from a place where I have a similar experience of, ‘Hey, I get it, I’m just curious: What was your meal like?'” Goodwin said. “I get this question a lot, but I’m asking it from a different place.”

“What unites us is that we have a place to tell our stories,” Buchanan said. “And we’re not freaks for each other.”

From the archives: Navy SEALs rescue kidnapped aid worker Jessica Buchanan

Re-entry was different for Buchanan, who was rescued by Navy SEALs. In failing health after months of sleeping in the desert without her prescribed medication, she initially spent time in a military hospital in Italy participating in a Department of Defense re-enlistment program that she said “incrementalized” the process. She saw her husband for an hour on her first day of freedom and just a little more on the second, on record so as not to overwhelm her.

Soon that support ended and Buchanan was in Portland, Oregon, where her immediate family had rented a house to escape the media masses. The furniture felt great—she remembers turning down a walk just to enjoy sitting in a chair. She was also overcome with a desire to run along a river, even though she had never been a runner, captivated by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.

Then Buchanan unexpectedly became pregnant, a difficult experience that left her feeling hostage again—this time to her body and the illness associated with pregnancy. Anxiety took over her life. She and her husband returned to work in Nairobi, but she did not feel she could continue.

A decade later, Buchanan is a public speaker, podcaster, publisher, and organization volunteer US Hostage. She still thinks about her captivity every day, which she says has forced her to rebuild her identity.

“To many of us that this happens to, we would all say the same thing: You are in these places because you are doing something or working in something that you really love,” she said. “And now you don’t have that, so who are you?”

Toledo, 61, is at the beginning of that process. He spent nearly five years in captivity in Venezuela as one of the “Citgo six” — a group of oil and gas executives wrongfully imprisoned by the regime of Nicolas Maduro in 2017.

When five of them were released in October as part of a prisoner exchange, they were flown to a military base in San Antonio, where they were reunited with their families away from the public eye. Like Buchanan, Toledo spent 10 days in a military program designed to help detainees adjust, something he said was invaluable.

Toledo, an avid runner before his incarceration, used to visualize running during his years in prison. At the base he got up early and only got a kilometer in before his legs felt weak. But being out in the open, breathing fresh air and seeing the sunrise was almost indescribable. “It was a transition from dream to reality,” he said. “Sometimes you ask yourself, ‘Is this real or just another dream?’

When he returned home to a Houston suburb, daily tasks were a source of stress. Driving for the first time “felt like skydiving,” he said. Making the paella, once a relaxing ritual he performed by rote, felt like a challenge that stirred a sense of uncertainty. He found himself using humor to avoid depressing others, joking with friends that prison had changed him by teaching him new skills: cleaning toilets, washing clothes, washing dishes.

Although he’s only been free for two months, Toledo said he’s decided to start advocating for other hostages. He has spoken with families of Americans held in Iran and China and met with other former hostages and detainees, including Goodwin. He hopes Griner will also go through a re-entry program.

“Investing these few days of your life will make this transition better,” he said.

Fatal: I was imprisoned in Iran for two years. It taught me a lot about how Tehran negotiates.

Joshua Fatal, one of the three Americans detained by Iranian border guards while walking near the Iran-Iraq border in 2009, describes his return after more than two years in Iran’s notorious Evin prison in categories.

Fatal said he had to get used to not being locked out — he remembers locking himself out of his apartment because “I hadn’t had to deal with keys in years — everyone else had the keys.” He had to adapt to his home country, where for some time he expected strangers to speak a foreign language. Then there was the media spectacle and the realization that his harrowing personal experience had been swept away grand political narratives.

Fatal, 40, keeps in touch with fellow inmates Shane Bauer and Sarah Shurd and finds healing through writing a book with them. It allowed him to categorize his experiences as “stories” — the time he played volleyball with a guard, the day he was sentenced to eight years in prison, he said.

More recently, he said, he has been able to re-examine the feelings underlying those stories with the help of psychedelic therapy, “in a safe and meaningful way.”

Fatal, now executive director of the Oregon Rural Livelihoods Center, said that while he doesn’t actively connect with other former hostages, he feels a kinship with others who have been incarcerated.

Although millions of people are incarcerated in the United States, “this is something so unknown to middle-class, mainstream America,” said Fatal, who recently met a man who had been released from an American prison. “I don’t know his background, but I know it’s true that every day is different. … You can’t just sum it up as one thing.”

Alex Drueke and Andy Tai Huynh offered casual glimpses into their experiences. The two Alabama veterans volunteered to fight in Ukraine after Russia invaded. Their squad was ambushed on their first mission in eastern Ukraine, they previously told The Washington Post. Russian forces held them for 104 days before releasing them in a prisoner exchange in September.

The men became closer in captivity. But they have approached their return in different ways, said Diana Shaw, Druke’s aunt, who serves as a spokeswoman for both.

Huynh sprinted back to normal. The 27-year-old is deep into wedding planning and has taken a job at Walmart, where his fiancée works, Shaw said, while the couple renovates the home they will share. He is thinking of completing his higher education.

Druke, 40, who used to live in a caravan on family land with his dog Diesel, has now found more comfort in his mother’s home, Shaw said, as he struggles with irregular sleep and an overactive mind. He never liked fruit, but now he eats it often, Shaw said, craving the vitamins he didn’t get on a diet of moldy bread and the occasional meat stew.

Drueke, looking for ways to turn his experience into something tangible and positive, met with the American military. He wants to help them better understand how prisoners of war are treated, which can inform training. But both men, who suffered abuse and malnutrition at the hands of their captors, struggle with fatigue and irritability, Shaw said.

The lessons of the long and winding road back home may be instructive for Greener, Shaw said, as another family learns to cope with a new normal.

“You have limitations and you have to give yourself grace,” she said.

Goodwin said he has little doubt that Griner’s re-entry — with all the resources at her disposal — will likely be completely different than his. But he has realized through connections with other ex-prisoners that many elements are likely to be the same.

“There’s such a high when you come home, but how do you deal with it for the rest of your life?” Goodwin said. For him, he said, “the network really helps.”

Brittney Greener is out of a Russian prison

The last one: WNBA star Brittney Griner landed in the United States around 5:30 a.m. ET Friday in San Antonio.

Prisoner Trade Deal: Her release was part of a prisoner exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Dubbed the “merchant of death,” Booth is a known arms dealer and has been in US custody since his arrest in Thailand in 2008. It is unclear why officials in Moscow were so eager to get him home.

Why was Griner detained?: Greener was imprisoned in Russia since February, when she was accused of entering the country with vape cartridges that contained less than a gram of cannabis oil, which is illegal in the country.

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