How will Brittney Griner face readjust to life here? Former detainees offer


Jessica Buchanan was on the elliptical at her gym when televisions began alerting news that nearly bowled her over with “vicarious relief.” Brittney Griner, the American basketball star imprisoned in Russia, was being freed in a prisoner swap.

Buchanan does not know Griner. But the former aid worker, held hostage by pirates in Somalia for 93 days a decade ago, is among the few who knew what Griner would be facing: Joyous and overwhelming reunions with loved ones. An onslaught of interview requests. A dawning understanding of the great efforts people back home made to secure her freedom. And, eventually, the lonely realization that captivity leaves an imprint that never fades.

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

“When you’re watching these things play out and time drags on, you know exactly how that feels,” said Buchanan, 43, who lives in Alexandria, Va. After a person’s release, she added, “what happens is everyone thinks that everything’s going to be fine from now on, because you got through it; you survived. It’s the honeymoon phase. What sets in is what I call ‘surviving survival.’”

The experience of Griner, a celebrity whose arrest for cannabis possession became a high-profile geopolitical standoff, is different from those of many other Americans wrongfully imprisoned or held hostage abroad. But no matter the circumstances, she is now a member of a small club nobody wants to join, former detainees say, bound by the common experience of stolen freedom and an often turbulent reacquaintance with it.

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

“What links us all together is having your freedom and human rights taken away from you 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, had lunch recently with Buchanan, whom he considers a friend. He also met in Washington this month with Jorge Toledo, one of six Americans and a permanent U.S. resident released from imprisonment in Venezuela in October.

Goodwin was arrested by Syrian forces while near the end of a quest to visit every country in the world — Syria was No. 181 of 193. He spent one month in solitary confinement and was dragged to court four times, he said. He had no idea anyone was helping him until, 62 days later, Lebanese intermediaries helped secured his release and he was taken to Beirut — and confronted with his elated parents and a sea of cameras.

A day later, Goodwin was back in his childhood bedroom in St. Louis. High school friends, who had seen him on the news, stopped by. The sight of trees delighted him after two months of seeing little but concrete. The presence of his four siblings and parents comforted him.

Captivity deepened his perseverance and gratitude, Goodwin said, and gave him a new life focus: He is now a doctoral student studying the Syrian conflict at Johns Hopkins University and is affiliated with the nonprofit Hostage Aid Worldwide. He doesn’t lead with his arrest in Syria on a first date. But it pours out when meeting other hostages.

“I feel totally comfortable asking them any questions, because I’m coming at it from a place of having a similar experience: ‘Hey, I get it, I’m just curious: What was your food like?’” Goodwin said. “I get that question a lot, but I ask it coming from a different place.”

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

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

Reentry was different for Buchanan, who was rescued by Navy SEALs. In poor health after months sleeping in the desert without her prescription medication, she initially spent time at a military hospital in Italy, participating in a Defense Department reintroduction program that she said “incrementalized” the process. She saw her husband for an hour on her first day of freedom, and just a bit longer the second, in a protocol to avoid overwhelming her.

Soon that support ended, and Buchanan was in Portland, Ore., where her immediate family had rented a house to escape the media masses. Furniture felt great — she remembers turning down a walk just to savor sitting in a chair. She was also seized with urges to run along a river, though she’d never been a runner, captivated by the Pacific Northwest beauty.

Then Buchanan…

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