An American mom gratefully reunited with her son in Poland after a team of American combat veterans rescued the 27-year-old American living in Ukraine from Russian captivity.
In mid-February, Gloria Bernardon anxiously watched the news from her home in Michigan as officials around the world warned of an impending Russian invasion in Ukraine. Her son, Kirillo Alexandrov, was living with his Ukrainian wife and mother-in-law near Kherson, a strategic port city.
Growing fearful for his safety, Gloria called her son and begged him to evacuate.
"He kept assuring me that there was nothing to be concerned about," Bernardon told TODAY Parents via phone from Poland. "He said Russia would not invade Ukraine."
Alexandrov, his wife and his mother-in-law remained at home for weeks, despite the violent Russian onslaught. It wasn't until Russian forces descended on their village that the family decided to leave.
In late March, while attempting to evacuate, Alexandrov and his family were captured and arrested by Russian troops, then charged with nearly a dozen crimes, including espionage, according to Alexandrov and Project Dynamo, a team led by U.S. military veterans that has been conducting rescue and evacuation operations since the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Alexandrov denies the allegations. TODAY Parents reached out to the Russian Embassy for comment, and did not get a response.
"On April 5, we got a telephone call at 5 am from somebody I didn't know," Bernardon said. "They asked me if I knew Kirillo and (his wife). Right away I was like, 'Who is this? What do you want? Are you Russian? The person on the other end said, 'I'm friend. I just want you to know, the Russians have taken them.' Just panic. I just screamed. The person, who turned out to be a friend, kept saying, 'Call embassy. Call Ambassador. Help, help.'
"I assured him that we would do everything we possibly could to help," she added.
A desperate call for help
A case worker for Project Dynamo was the first to speak with Bernardon about her son's detainment.
"The folks from Project Dynamo were very positive and gave me a lot of hope," Bernardon said. "I was encouraged. Fearful, yes, but they kept regular communication with us. I felt like we had someone who cares."
Bryan Stern, the co-founder of Project Dynamo, says the team immediately took the case.
"Dynamo always kind of gravitates towards the hard stuff," Stern told TODAY. "So when we learned about the case and the location of it — I mean, he may as well have been in downtown Moscow — there was nothing to say but: 'Yes.'"
A spokesperson said the U.S. State Department was “aware of these reports” about the rescue but would have no comment “due to privacy considerations.”
Alexandrov and his family were 60 miles behind enemy lines, Stern said, surrounded by land mines and deep inside Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.
Alexandrov says he was handcuffed and beaten on multiple occasions. He says his wife was assaulted.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, says her office is currently investigating more than 8,000 crimes related to the war, and the International Criminal Court (ICC) has launched its own investigation.
Russian soldiers told Alexandrov they planned to send him and his family to Moscow, where they faced more than 20 years in prison, according to Alexandrov and Stern.
The mission had an expiration date.
Formulating a plan ... and a backup
The month-long rescue mission proved to be logistically challenging, especially after information obtained by Project Dynamo team members revealed that Alexandrov was dangerously close to being sent to Moscow.
Stern is a former US Army enlisted service member, former US Navy intelligence officer and a first responder on the morning of September 11, 2001 with multiple combat tours in over 50 countries. He is a Purple Heart recipient.
"This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my career, by far," he added.
Project Dynamo nicknamed the mission “Detroit Lions,” an ode to the NFL football team from Alexandrov’s home state.
For a rescue plan, the team had two options: A negotiated release, or a unilateral extraction.
"We had hoped for a negotiated release," Stern explained. "It's safer, and it's better for everybody. The catch with the negotiation part is that I didn't have any leverage — I don't have a prisoner to exchange in return; I don't have millions of dollars to pay a ransom. I don't have those resources."
Every negotiation either failed or stalled, Stern said.
Stern and his team simultaneously focused on a possible extraction. Every route and potential means of transportation were considered, including obtaining a helicopter to airlift Alexandrov to safety, and a boat to evacuate him via the Black Sea.
All Bernardon, Alexandrov's mother, could do was watch from the safety of her hotel room in Poland. She had flown to the country bordering Ukraine on April 14, hoping she would be able to hug her son again.
"There were times when the news was not good. And I would be like, 'Oh, woe is me. This is terrible.' And my husband would say, 'No, you stay strong. Keep the faith,'" Bernardon said. "I'm a firm believer in the power of prayer, too. I prayed almost every breathing moment."
As Russians were preparing to celebrate Victory Day on March 9, a national holiday honoring the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, the team settled on a ground operation. Staged near Kherson, the team would drive to Alexandrov, obtain both him, his wife, and his mother-in-law and then drive them to Poland.
"The idea was that on Victory Day, in the middle of the parade and while everybody in Russia — and more importantly in Ukraine — is busy watching TV, there would be less scrutiny at the check points, minimal manning and skeleton crews," Stern explained. "It’s like moving someone on Christmas. So that’s when we initiated it: In the middle of the parade and by design."
Operation 'Detroit Lions'
As Stern conducted another stalled negotiation, he quietly ordered his team to begin the extraction. They were able to secure Alexandrov and his family, who were in transit under armed guard. (For strategic reasons, Stern does not want to say publicly exactly how they pulled this off.)
Once Alexandrov, his wife and his mother-in-law were secured, Stern and his team drove as fast as possible to the Poland-Ukraine border.
"The guy I was negotiating with called five hours after Kirillo was rescued to continue negotiations," Stern said. "We were already on the run so we didn’t write him back — I deliberately ghosted him."
Stern says the Russian negotiator continued to text him, in a text exchange he showed to TODAY Parents.
"I finally responded and wrote, 'Deal is closed. I'm in Poland,'" Stern said. "In reality, I was nine hours away and still in Ukraine."
After 30 minutes of radio silence, Stern told the negotiator again that he was already in Poland, and that Alexandrov was with him.
"He didn’t believe that I had him, so I sent him a picture."
The team drove nearly 1,000 miles and passed over 20 check points before bringing Alexandrov and his family members to safety.
In the eyes of Russia, Stern said, "He remains an escaped felon — an escaped criminal — as we speak. ... They still have his passport."
A tearful reunion
Bernardon, a mother of two and proud grandmother, was waiting on the Poland-Ukraine border, anxious to hold her youngest child in her arms.
"I just wondered, so many times, if this was ever going to happen," she said. "I had a picture in my mind of how it would happen, and it was even more beautiful than I had ever imagined."
After spending a few days in Poland, the happily reunited family plan to fly back home to the United States, where Bernardon will be able to spend even more time with her son.
"I'd love to have everybody at home with me and be just one big happily family," Bernardon said. "That would be lovely. They never wanted to leave Ukraine, so I know they'd love to go back, just not under these circumstances."
Stern says his team will continue to rescue as many people as they possibly can and until there's no more need to operate inside Ukraine. To date, he says Project Dynamo has successfully evacuated more than 600 people by conducting over 50 missions.
While Bernardon says there are many lessons to be learned from her son's captivity and rescue, one will always stand out to her the most:
"It's a red flag from the beginning of time, I think: When someone says, ‘Don’t worry,’ that’s the time to start worrying," she said. "So I think next time I'll be a little more assertive with him and say, 'You're not telling me what to do. I'm going to worry and you're going to act.'"