TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – There was a heroes welcome at Tampa International Airport Wednesday night for the leader of a local non-profit that has rescued American hostages and thousands of Ukrainians since the Russian invasion began.
“We punch the Russians in the face pretty much weekly,” Project Dynamo co-founder Bryan Stern said. “At this point they hate us. They try to hurt us all the time. That’s OK, we’re smart. We play chess, not checkers.”
Project Dynamo was formed to evacuate Americans left behind after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last September.
For the last five months, the organization has been on the ground in war torn Ukraine.
Stern said the mission in Ukraine is not over. They are actively working cases of Americans who are in captivity or on the run from the Russians and more than 9,000 Ukrainians are still reaching out for help.
“Every day in Ukraine is like 9/11,” Stern said. “I was a 9/11 first responder. I know what I’m talking about.”
After touching down at TPA, Stern kissed and hugged his wife for the first time after more than 150 days in Ukraine.
“Dynamo is one of those organizations where I secretly hope that there’s no need,” he said.
Anticipating the need in Ukraine, Stern travelled there before the Russian invasion began in February.
In the days leading up to the war, he said he built a network of contacts that have helped Project Dynamo evacuate humanitarian convoys, newborn babies, expecting mothers and American hostages.
“If you have an American passport and if you’re in an occupied area,” Stern said, “you are under arrest.”
The Russian intelligence services illegally detained 27-year-old Kirillo Alexandrov for 37 days.
“A good portion of my brain was numb, terrified, in pain, worried,” said Alexandrov, who also arrived in Tampa Wednesday night.
When Stern went into a Russian controlled territory in early May to rescue Alexandrov and his family, he said he brought men armed with machine guns.
“They sent a hitman to assassinate me, to assassinate him, to assassinate his wife and assassinate his mother-in-law,” Stern said. “May he rest in peace.”
Stern said Ukrainian forces are rising to the challenge of Russian aggression.
“That said the Russian war machine is incredibly effective, the propaganda machine is incredibly effective,” he said. “I do predict that it gets more violent.”
Stern said he’s thrilled to be back home in Tampa Bay, but he plans to return to Ukraine next month.
“So the demand signal is there, our donations are going down,” Stern said. “As long as we have funding, we will continue to operate.”
A Christian missionary from Houston that Project Dynamo rescued after eight days in Russian captivity also arrived in Tampa Wednesday night.