Brittney Griner bonded with flight crew on way home, official says

WNBA star Brittney Griner didn’t want to spend time alone as soon as she boarded a US government plane that would take her home.

“I’ve been in jail for 10 months, listening to the Russians. I want to talk,” Griner said, according to Roger Carstens, the presidential special envoy for hostage affairs who helped secure the star’s release. basketball and brought her back to the United States last week.

She then asked Carstens, referring to the other people on the plane, “But first of all, who are these guys?”

“And she walked right past me and went up to all the members of this crew, looked them in the eye, shook their hands and asked about them, got their names, made a personal connection with them,” Carstens recalled in an interview on CNN. “State of the Union” which aired on Sunday. “It was really amazing.”

Ultimately, Griner spent about 12 hours on an 18-hour flight talking with other people on the plane, Carstens said. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and Phoenix Mercury star opened up about his time in the Russian penal colony and his months in captivity, Carstens recalled, though he declined to go into specific details.

“I felt like he was an intelligent, passionate, compassionate, humble, interesting person, a patriotic person,” Carstens said. “But above all, authentic. I hate that I had to meet her in this way, but I really felt blessed to have had the chance to know her.”

Griner returned to US soil on Friday when the plane she was in landed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.

Although Griner is undergoing a full medical and mental evaluation, Carstens said she seemed “full of energy, looked fantastic.”

Griner, who also played professional basketball in Russia, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in February after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape cartridges containing cannabis oil.

The US State Department had said Griner was “wrongfully detained” – a charge Russia has firmly denied.

President Joe Biden announced on Thursday that the United States had secured Griner’s release. In return, the administration offered Russia the release of notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was serving a 25-year sentence for conspiring to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that officials say Americans, were to be used against the Americans.

But the United States has been unable to secure the release of Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia for nearly four years. Administration officials have repeatedly stressed that they are still working to free Whelan, whom Russian officials have jailed on espionage charges that her family and the US government say are baseless.

“They’re holding Mr. Whelan differently because of these espionage charges,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “So we’re working on that now. We’re more informed now, clearly having been through this process over the last few months. We’re more informed. We have a better sense of the context here, where the expectations of the Russians are, and we’re just going to keep working on it.”

Carstens, the US government’s top hostage negotiator, said “there are always cards” to be played in securing an offer for Whelan, and added that he spoke with the jailed American on Friday.

“Here’s what I said to him. I said, ‘Paul, you have this president’s commitment. The president is focused. The Secretary of State is focused. I’m definitely focused and we’re going to get you home,” Carstens said. “And I called him back, I said, ‘Paul, when you were in the Marines and I was in the Army, they have always reminded you, keep the faith.’ And I said, ‘Keep the faith. We’re coming to get you.'”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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