This past Wednesday was Austin Tice’s 40th birthday. Saturday marks nine years that he has been held against his will in the Middle East.
The Marine veteran who’d returned to law school after multiple deployments had traveled to Syria in May 2012 to cover the civil war in that country as a freelance journalist. He wanted to tell the story of the conflict’s impact on the Syrian people.
On his way out of the country — he planned to leave for Lebanon Aug. 14 — he got into a car in the southern Damascus suburb of Darayya to make the trip, but shortly after leaving he was detained at a checkpoint, according to information provided by his family.
At that point, Tice disappeared.
It was not until five weeks later that a 43-second video titled “Austin Tice is Alive” was posted online showing him blindfolded and held by unidentified armed men.
To this day, nine years later, no one has claimed responsibility for his capture.
In November 2018, then-Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Robert O’Brien announced at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., that officials believed Tice was alive. He did not provide details.
The investigation continues with the presumption that he is alive.
Though they have participated in previous interviews with Marine Corps Times, the Tice family instead shared a written statement this year. They have taken time over these many years, on the week of Tice’s capture anniversary, to gather together to reflect on the joy he has brought to their lives while also pausing to “grieve and detest” his detention day of Aug. 14, 2012, according to the statement.
While expressing their gratitude for the support of people and organizations connected to seeking Tice’s return, they also have disappointments to share.
“We are also intensely frustrated by the irresolute, on-again-off-again involvement of our government and its insufficient resolve to secure Austin’s release,” according to the statement.
But they wrote, their resolve remains.
“We are now imploring a third President of the United States to communicate to his administration that Austin’s secure release and safe return is a priority,” they wrote. “There are many capable people working in our government who are eager to see Austin walk free; they must have President Biden’s authorization for significant and relevant diplomatic engagement with the Syrian government.”
Austin Tice’s parents have been critical of what they say have been bureaucratic hurdles that have stalled, stymied or even prevented negotiations for their son’s release.
During a March 2020 press briefing, then-President Donald Trump called on Syria to release Tice.
“We have one young gentleman, Austin Tice, and we’re working very hard with Syria to get him out,” the president said. “We hope the Syrian government will do that. We are counting on them to do that. We’ve written a letter just recently, but he’s been there for a long time and was captured long ago.
“Austin Tice. His mother is probably watching and she’s a great lady,” he continued. “And we’re doing the best we can. So, Syria, please work with us. And we would appreciate you letting him out.”
But the Tice family learned last summer, through an excerpt in the book, “The Room Where it Happened,” by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, that not everyone was on board with the idea of making Austin Tice’s release a priority.
In the book, Bolton claimed Trump pushed repeatedly for hostage exchanges, but both Bolton and then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saw it as “undesirable” for other policy goals — a reference to their aim, in early 2019, to keep a certain level of U.S. troops in Syria.
In a 2020 interview with Marine Corps Times, Debra Tice said she was “shocked” when she read that, nearly eight years after her son had been captured.
“As Austin’s mother, when I read this quote, my heart hears it as the former national security advisor gloating that he and the secretary of state, two Army vets, defied our president and continued to leave my son hostage in Syria,” she said.
On Aug. 11, NBC Nightly News aired reporter Lester Holt’s interview with Debra and Marc Tice that was equally candid and frank.
“Words are easy. We are really measuring more by action, which is what we don’t see,” Debra Tice said. “The only thing, Lester, that we’ve asked since 2012 — nine years, three administrations — is direct diplomatic engagement with the Syrian government.”
Marc Tice said the family wants Biden to tell the State Department that Austin’s freedom is a priority.
He added that has confidence that Austin is holding up well.
“I think when he went to Syria, he believed firmly that he had the background, the experience, the knowledge that would enable him to operate in a different environment. And I think the same holds true for his time in captivity,” Marc Tice said.
The U.S. Department of State leads diplomatic efforts to repatriate detained U.S. citizens. It also works with the Hostage Fusion Recovery Cell, a multi-agency team based at FBI headquarters that represents the government’s unified approach to recovering American hostages abroad.
Through spokeswoman Joan Sinclair, both groups declined interview requests with Marine Corps Times and instead provided written comments.
“We will continue to pursue all avenues to Bring Austin Tice home,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.
Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, a 20-year Army veteran and Green Beret, said Austin’s case “weighs heavily” on him and his team operates under the same ethos as he did while in uniform — “leave no one behind.”
He also noted that his team has the “full support” of U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken in seeking Tice’s safe return.
“We will find a way to bring him home,” Carstens said.
Robert Saale, the former HRFC director, told Marine Corps Times in 2020 that the complex and dynamic nature of conditions in Syria adversely affect efforts to free Tice.
“It’s almost like a perfect storm of circumstances, sort of inopportune times, where you’ve had chemical strikes by Syrians, followed by retaliatory strikes by the U.S, government. It’s kind of a two steps forward, three steps back process,” he said.
On April 26, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and representatives sent a letter to President Joe Biden pleading for more to be done. It was signed by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, where Austin Tice’s parents reside.
The letter noted the upcoming nine-year anniversary and the work the Tice family has done with the two previous presidential administrations to find Austin and secure his release. The lawmakers noted that Biden’s decision to keep Ambassador Roger Carstens as the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs shows his commitment to finding and freeing Tice.
“The recent release of others in Syria, including one American, give Marc and Debra confidence that their son’s release can also be secured,” they wrote.
They called upon the president to use his administration’s “full capabilities to secure Austin’s long-overdue release,” and said they trusted Biden would follow up on previous administrations’ efforts “as well as talks initiated by the Syrians.”
When reached for comment, an aide to Cornyn, said the senator’s office remains in contact with the Tice family and the State Department.
Tice served in the Marine Corps from 2005 until his reserve status expired in 2015 and was promoted to captain in 2009. During his time in service, he deployed to Iraq twice and once to Afghanistan, according to Marine Corps records, with his last deployment coming in 2011, the year before he was detained.
His last duty assignment was with 3rd ANGLICO, Marine Forces Reserve.
Tice was a private citizen and working as a freelance journalist for multiple media outlets, including the Washington Post, when he was captured. He was in a reserve status but not serving in the military when he traveled to the Middle East.
Through his spokesman, Eric Flanagan, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger declined an interview request.
Maj. Jim Stenger, a spokesman for Headquarters Marine Corps, shared a statement on behalf of the Corps.
“Austin Tice served as a Marine Corps officer with honor, and we continue to hope for his safe return home,” Stenger wrote.
In 2020, the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., installed a “Freedom Clock” at their headquarters to mark the years, days, hours, minutes and seconds since Tice was taken hostage.
On Saturday, they will add up to 3,288 days.
*Correction: This article has been updated with the correct first name of Secretary of State Tony Blinken and the correct day reference for Austin Tice’s birthday.
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.