Above the fireplace in the Tice family’s Texas home memories grow.
Photos of new babies, couplings, graduations and other life moments fill the space to overflowing to the point where Debra and Marc Tice have had to extend the mantel.
But no matter how full that space becomes, it’s never complete. That’s because their eldest child, Austin, still hasn’t come home.
“It never escapes anyone’s conscious that there’s someone missing,” Marc Tice said. “Any time we do get together, there’s always a hole.”
Veteran Marine officer Austin Tice was working as a freelance journalist, documenting the triumphs and tragedies of the Syrian people, in August 2012 when someone kidnapped him and has since held him in an unknown location, for publicly unknown reasons.
The 38-year-old man disappeared while reporting from the war-torn country without warning. He was headed home after having been in the area over the summer between semesters at Georgetown Law.
While the family has been in touch with U.S. government officials for years, there’s little that they can say publicly about what they know about Austin’s condition.
But, in November 2018, Robert O’Brien, special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, announced at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that U.S. officials believe he is still alive and was believed to be held in Syria.
Syrian government officials have denied any knowledge about Austin’s whereabouts or any involvement in his detention. No other organization has taken public credit nor made any demands in exchange for his release.
While that might sound odd to a general public whose understanding of hostage situations extends to Hollywood movies, none of those elements are as out of the ordinary as they might seem, one veteran interagency military expert told Marine Corps Times.
“They could have sent some sort of message that has been kept quiet,” said Steve Bucci, visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, career Army Special Forces officer and a prior military adviser to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “They could be using convoluted pathways or (keeping quiet) is one of the conditions of not killing him.”
A host of groups could have taken Austin Tice for a variety of reasons, Bucci said. Criminal gangs could see an American journalist, former military officer as a bargaining chip for a hefty ransom. Ideologically driven extremists groups might see him as an enemy whom they could make an example of. And even the Syrian government could have detained him for political leverage.
Why that’s not been made public might also be a safety concern for the kidnappers, Bucci said. Once a group declares they have him and what they want, they could become a target.
On the reverse side of the situation, the six-year delay for the U.S. officials to publicly acknowledge “proof of life” regarding Austin Tice could also be strategic, Bucci said.
“They could be using it to pressure people holding him, move things along, give some concessions, pressure them that way,” Bucci said. “These kind of negotiations are idiosyncratic and don’t follow a defined path. This could be the group’s first hostage or 100th this group has taken. You don’t know the level of intensity.”
For the Tice family, the intensity is all too real each and every day.
As Tice’s parents and six younger siblings await his homecoming, the curiosity, care and example that he set drive everyone to both hold on to hope for his return while also build their own lives.
From a very young age, Austin Tice was insatiably curious, Debra Tice said. He always wanted to know how things worked, from something mechanical to a concept or philosophy.
He started attending college classes early, at age 16 and moved out of the home when he turned 18 years old, transferring from the University of Houston to Georgetown University.
Tice was at Georgetown when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Shortly after the 2004 presidential campaign in which military service records between candidate John Kerry and President George W. Bush came into question that Austin decided he needed to serve his country.
He called up his mother and said he was joining the Army.
Not a military family, she was somewhat surprised.
“He’s not asking me, he’s 23 years old. He’s telling me he’s doing this,” Debra Tice said.
She only asked if the Army was the “right fit.” After a little more research he settled on the Marine Corps.
He deployed on a Marine Expeditionary Unit, spending time in Africa and later in Iraq and Afghanistan. He left the Marine Corps to go to Georgetown Law School.
But he stayed tuned into what was happening in the region, particularly as Syria began to implode.
In February 2012, as he was finishing his second year of three in law school and his classmates were scrambling for summer internships, Austin decided he would go to Syria and report on what was happening.
Despite his eventual military and law school past he had said at a much younger age he wanted to work someday as a foreign correspondent, perhaps for National Public Radio, Debra Tice said.
He arrived in May and didn’t waste time. While in Syria he did work for the various news outlets both writing and shooting photos and videos of the escalating carnage and devastation that the Syrian civil war had wrought.
When they learned he was taken, the family thought that it would all be resolved in a few days, maybe weeks. Debra and Marc Tice told their kids: “You live your lives and we’ll worry about Austin. That’s what he would want you to do.”
Those days and weeks have turned into seven years.
And that’s a life that Debra and Marc Tice hold out for their other children: Keep moving forward because when Austin returns he would want to see all that you have accomplished.
“It is such a good and right thing,” they said. “When Austin comes home his brothers and sisters have not been held away from their lives while he is in his detention.”
Debra and Marc Tice told Marine Corps Times that they are still puzzled why there hasn’t been more public awareness or outcry about their son’s disappearance.
They’ve pushed media outlets and congressional staff to speak more publicly about his plight. Earlier this year they held a D.C.-based “Night Out for Austin Tice” to raise money and awareness at local restaurants.
TIce’s six siblings do work locally where they live to talk with television outlets for events and on the anniversary of his kidnapping.
This year, they’ve launched a new campaign, “Ask About Austin Tice,” which seeks messages to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the petitioners congressional representative and a Sept. 23 event at the Capitol followed by a Sept. 30 exhibit showcasing Austin’s photojournalism work in Syria at the Rayburn Building Foyer in D.C.
They recently had an open letter, encouraging public support in major news outlets such as The New York Times, CNN and USA Today
All of this are an effort to build more awareness and support to push for Austin’s return home, his parents said.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.