Debra and Marc Tice are the parents of journalist Austin Tice.
The U.S. government believes Austin is alive and in Syria, held by a group affiliated with the Syrian government. Earlier this year, President Biden gave his administration a clear directive: Get a meeting with the Syrians, listen to them, find out what they want and work with them.
So why has it taken three months for the administration to even start following these instructions? We expected Austin to be home by now.
Every day for the past 3,650 days, we have felt in our lives and our hearts the hole that Austin’s presence fills — his spirit, his courage, his humor, his love. We’re Austin’s parents, so of course we think he’s wonderful. But really he’s the type of son any American would be proud of. He is an Eagle Scout who served our country with honor as an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. He’s a cherished big brother. He was a law student at Georgetown when he went to Syria, where his reporting earned him the prestigious Polk Award.
When Austin went overseas, he was looking ahead to his 30s. With his military service complete and his schooling almost behind him, the decade ahead was to set the foundation for the rest of his life. Austin loves babies and wanted to start a family; he kept a weekly Skype date with his little niece, calling her even while sheltering in a stairwell in Syria. Austin has a deep sense of responsibility to help protect the vulnerable. It’s why he was considering, after law school, a career prosecuting human traffickers.
That sense of responsibility led him to Syria. From his tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Austin had seen the devastation of urban warfare, particularly the toll it takes on women and children. He did not want the same fate for Syria. He believed the world needed reliable on-the-ground reporting about what was happening there. As President Biden put it Aug. 10, Austin “is an investigative journalist who put the truth above himself and traveled to Syria to show the world the real cost of war.”
Austin, in other words, is someone who lives by his ideals. In the past 10 years, however, those of us closest to him have had some of our ideals shattered. We’ve learned the hard way that our government is not what we were taught in civics class — of, by and for the people. It has been painful to see just how profoundly dysfunctional our federal bureaucracy can be.
We’ve seen this play out across three administrations. Early opportunities to get Austin back were squandered during the Obama administration. We are still scarred by the fact that, even though President Donald Trump said he wanted Austin home, national security adviser John Bolton wrote in his book that he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo thwarted the president’s efforts. Now we worry about the same kind of bureaucratic obstruction happening again.
On May 2, we were grateful to meet with President Biden in the Oval Office. There, he gave his senior national security staff an unambiguous directive to engage directly with the Syrian government. But 102 days later, we are still waiting to see Austin walk free.
We’ve heard about the purported obstacles. That the Syrians won’t acknowledge holding Austin. That they won’t respond to U.S. overtures. That we can’t engage directly because we don’t have diplomatic relations with them. Sadly, these are just excuses.
The president was serving as vice president when Austin was abducted; he knows that in those early days the Syrians were eager for U.S. engagement in the case. When, in 2014, Debra spent 83 days in Damascus knocking on doors, making phone calls, doing everything possible to learn of Austin’s whereabouts, a senior member of the Syrian government said: “I will not meet with the mother. Send a United States government official of appropriate title.”
We’re encouraged by recent news that the Biden administration has initiated direct outreach to the Syrians. We hope they choose to send “a government official of appropriate title.” They should not be deterred by State Department concerns about high-level recognition of Bashar al-Assad. Officials at the highest levels of our government deal with controversial leaders every day. Just last month, the president himself fist-bumped one of them.
The other painful lesson we have learned is that, with elections and changes of government every other year, it can be difficult to sustain progress on Austin’s case. As we head into another campaign season, we fear getting pushed off again. Yet the Biden administration has an opportunity to win over voters by acting to restore our faith, and that of other disillusioned Americans, in our government. If the State Department and our national security apparatus simply follow the commander in chief’s instructions and begin a full-fledged effort to bring Austin home, it would send a clear message that our government puts the well-being of citizens above politics.
Every day without Austin brings renewed pain. Every time our family gets together, there’s a void where Austin should be. He would have loved seeing his siblings graduate from college. He would have loved seeing our family grow through weddings and births. Occasions that should be full of unbridled joy are always tinged with sorrow at the thought: Austin could be here. His prolonged absence is a wound more time won’t heal. It will only make it worse.
We appreciate that President Biden has spoken of Austin with compassion and understanding. The words of the president, a father himself and no stranger to loss, are quite comforting. Even so, after 10 years, Austin doesn’t need his parents to be comforted. He needs our government to turn the president’s words into action. He needs to come home.