As freed WNBA star Brittney Griner visits a Texas military medical facility following nearly 10 months of imprisonment in Russia, Jorge Toledo – one of the “Citgo 6” – spoke to CNN Saturday about how reintegration into society can take time and effort.
Toledo was released in October as part of a prisoner swap after being detained while on a 2017 business trip to Venezuela with other oil and gas executives from the Citgo Corporation.
Two months after his release, Toledo described the challenges he has faced with returning to regular daily life – hurdles he didn’t think about when he was first freed – and the advice he has for Griner.
“When I just landed in San Antonio … I felt great to taste the freedom and the smell of freedom. And you never think about any aspects as a consequence of your captivity. But as the time passed by, as you start getting into the normal life, you notice that reintegration means a challenge,” he told CNN’s Pamela Brown.
Having spent five years in captivity, Toledo has had to rebuild relationships with family members, including grandchildren who were only babies when he was detained.
Toledo also experienced trouble sleeping and other health issues after returning to the US, and saw minor, everyday tasks like driving become sources of anxiety.
His advice for Griner? “Take your time.”
“It’s very important to feel the presence of your family, the love of your family, and let the family love you. Because the feel of love is something so important,” he said.
After he was freed, Toledo said, he was part of a program in San Antonio that involved six days with a group of psychologists. He says the program was “extremely important” for his reintegration and hopes Griner can take advantage of similar resources.
US authorities have said their focus was on providing Griner support.
“We are now focused on ensuring that Brittney and her family’s well-being are prioritized and that all available assistance can be offered to them through an appropriate manner,” US State Department principal deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel said at a news briefing Friday.
Griner arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio early Friday, and officials have not specified how long she will be there.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told CNN Griner was “in good spirits” and “incredibly gracious” following her release.
Griner was released as part of a prisoner exchange between the US and Russia for notorious convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout. The exchange on Thursday, which took months to negotiate, marked an end to nearly 10 months of confinement after the basketball star was arrested on drug charges at a Russian airport in February and then sentenced to nine years in prison.
Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, issued a statement on her Instagram page Saturday, thanking people for their support.
“Yesterday my heart was made whole thanks to the collective efforts of MANY! I’m humbled by their hearts. To care for another, a stranger to some, a friend to some— is humanity in its purest form!” Griner’s wife wrote.
“As BG and I start our journey to heal our minds, body, and spirits— I wanted to personally say thank you to some of the hands; seen and unseen, that helped make it possible for me to see my wife again!” her statement continued.
Griner’s friend, WNBA player Angel McCoughtry, said she knows Griner will need time and space, but believes she’ll eventually return to the basketball court.
“We missed her last year. It wasn’t the same in the WNBA without her,” McCoughtry said. “We don’t start until May, so that gives her a couple months to gather and get back in shape and get back in the groove, smell the American air again. I think she’ll play, if I had to give my opinion on it … I think she wants to get back out there and just feel loved again by the fans.”
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said, “We all want to see her, but we’re going to give her time and space and get her medically evaluated, mentally, emotionally and physically.”
While many celebrate Griner’s return, the fate of another American detainee in Russia, Paul Whelan, remains unclear.
Whelan – a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen – is currently imprisoned in a Russian penal colony after he was arrested in December 2018 on espionage charges, which he has denied. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison. He, like Griner, had been declared wrongfully detained by US officials.