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Five years later, parents continue search for missing journalist

Austin Tice

Marc and Debra Tice have spent the last five years devoting their lives to seeing the return of their son, Austin, who went missing in Syria on Aug. 13, 2012. | Traynor Swanson/The Cougar

Austin Tice filed his last story and was set to leave war-ravaged Syria for neighboring Lebanon several days after his 31st birthday.

It was Aug. 13, 2012, and the Marine-turned-freelance journalist had spent the summer away from law school at Georgetown University to report on the convoluted situation in Syria at a time when few dared to enter the country; but before he could leave, he was abducted in Darayya — a suburb five miles southwest of Damascus.

Five years later, former UH student Austin Tice is still in captivity, and his whereabouts are unknown.

His parents, Marc and Debra Tice, have been steadfast in their efforts to return their oldest son to the United States. They have no doubt that he’s alive, and the Trump administration, they said, is making their son’s release a priority — reportedly setting up a back channel with the Syrian government specifically for his release.

“We have a strong idea about who’s holding Austin, but we aren’t free to share that,” Debra Tice said. “We know that Austin’s alive. … Here we have an American being held in Syria, and so that gives us a focus for what we are going to do; we’re going to do everything we can to motivate Austin’s government to locate him, advocate for him and bring him home.”

Last December, Sen. John Cornyn announced on the Senate floor that James O’Brien, the presidential envoy for hostage affairs, told him that they have “high confidence that Austin is alive in Syria along with other Americans who are being held captive.”

What’s important is not so much who’s holding him, Marc Tice said, as what needs to happen to begin and finish the process of getting him home safely.

“That’s the bigger question: what needs to be done to secure his release?” Debra Tice said.

A precocious mind

In hindsight, Debra Tice didn’t fully realize how gifted the young Austin was until her grandson — Tice’s nephew — had a one-year check up, when children are expected to speak at least one clear word.

“Austin was speaking in complete sentences at his first birthday,” she said.

His applied intellect and astute knowledge of international affairs led a 9-year-old Tice to write a letter to then-President Bill Clinton questioning his decision for military intervention in Haiti — a letter the Tices discovered after their son’s disappearance.

“Apparently he never said, ‘I’m 9 or 10,’” Debra Tice said. “He typed it on (Marc’s) typewriter, and the president responded to him saying, ‘Dear Mr. Tice, I appreciate your thoughts about this.”

Marc and Debra Tice were astounded.

“We’re looking at this going, ‘What? He’s sending letters to the president?’” Marc Tice said. “We didn’t even know about it.”

By 16, Austin Tice, who was homeschooled by his mother, was ready for college. His parents were weary of sending him off to a distant university, but they agreed he could attend UH, not far from the couple’s home in Meyerland.

The admissions employee at UH was skeptical, Debra Tice said, asking Austin what made him think he was ready for college and what his plans were once he received a degree.

“He goes, ‘Well, I’d really like to be a foreign correspondent for NPR,’” Debra Tice said. “I think that was basically when she went, ‘Alrighty then, we’ll give you a whirl.’”

Austin was placed on probation as a condition of his early admittance, but by the next semester, he was writing for The Daily Cougar and attending UH on a full scholarship.

Though he was successful at UH for two years, Austin had his sights set on another institution: Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, but Georgetown doesn’t encourage transfer students, Debra Tice said, so Austin faced an uphill battle.

On the day the admissions process opened, his application was in the mail. He calculated how long it would take the letter to arrive in Washington D.C. and called them the day they received it. When he found out they had yet to review it, he began calling them back daily.

Eventually, he got frustrated and laid out all his aspirations on the table with the admissions office.

“Finally he just says, ‘The next stop of my education is that I’m going to go to Georgetown,’” Debra Tice said. “‘So, whether I begin this semester or next semester or five semesters from now, it’s my only choice, so I’ll be reapplying if I’m not accepted this semester.’”

Marc and Debra Tice said they have a theory that Georgetown finally acquiesced just so Austin would stop calling every day.

A fighting chance

His parents continue to fight for their son’s release with the same resolve and persistence Austin displayed when applying to Georgetown.

“If you’re around them for a while, you’ll understand that they are people who have a great deal of love for other people, but also you’ll understand that these are persons who are well read,” said Rep. Al Green, the couple’s representative.

Austin’s parents have learned everything they possibly can to secure the release of their son, Green said.

“They know the locations. They understand the terrain. They understand what’s going on in Syria,” he said. “They’re not persons who just showed up and said, ‘Bring my son home.’ They have literally said, ‘Help us bring our child home.’”

Discontent with the government’s efforts to return Austin, Debra Tice traveled in 2014 to Damascus to search for her son and raise awareness of his captivity by taking fliers with his picture to local markets and reaching out to the Syrian government.

“I did not live in luxury,” she said. “I lived with internally displaced people. … It was challenging, but the Syrian people are just so incredibly welcoming and hospitable, and (they’re) willing and wanting to help.”

Given the opportunity, she said, they’ll go back.

From committed to engaged

Prior to 2015, the U.S. government did not have any broad policy or approach toward returning American hostages held overseas, leaving the families of captives in the dark about what strategy the government was pursuing, Marc Tice said.

In June 2014, one year after the beheadings of other captured journalists like James Foley and Steven Sotloff, the campaign to free Austin Tice benefited from then-President Barack Obama’s executive order establishing the presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Debra Tice said.

“The creation of that new policy, which created entities staffed by career public servants, created a situation where now there’s great collaboration within the government, (and) much, much, better collaboration with families,” Marc Tice said. “When there was the transition between the Obama administration and the Trump administration, it wasn’t starting all over again.”

The Trump administration, Debra Tice said, is committed to the return of American hostages.

“For me, the difference is the Obama administration was committed; the Trump administration is engaged,” Debra Tice said. “We have been hugely gratified by how quickly they’ve gotten up to speed (and) how action-oriented they are as far as securing Austin’s release.”

Not a zero-sum game

Regardless of their progress, Debra Tice said she and her husband are still failing.

“This is a zero-sum equation,” she said. “He’s either home, or he’s not home. That’s the measure.”

Still, Green, who described the Tices as the most amiable, amicable people he’s worked with, said they’ve made the system better for other people.

“Those who follow them will benefit from the way they’ve not only tried to extricate their son, but how they’ve tried to make the system respond positively so that others can get faster results,” Green said. “They help the government, too, but… they’ve had a hand on the wheel, and they have demonstrated that they can make a difference for themselves as well as others.”

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