Bilal Hussein/AP/Shutterstock Marc and Debra Tice
The call came nearly ten years ago, one day in mid-August: “Mr. Tice, are you seated? Your son appears to have disappeared in Syria,” a US State Department official said.
Austin, the son of Debra and Marc Tice, then 31, was working in Syria as a freelance journalist under dangerous circumstances and was about to leave the country. Instead, he was detained at a checkpoint in a suburb of Damascus on August 14, 2012, and is believed to be held captive by people under the control of the Syrian government. He has not been heard from since.
Her mother and father have worked tirelessly for her release every day since then.
Melissa Lyttle/Redux Debra and Marc Tice at the United States Capitol in 2019
“At first we thought it was no big deal, he’ll show up tomorrow. But as the weeks passed, we had to figure out it was something big,” said Austin’s father Marc, 64. years, a former entrepreneur in the oil and gas industry, says PEOPLE.
Les Tices appealed to the US State Department for his release, but came to nothing: the US Embassy closed in Syria earlier this year.
Frustrated, Debra and Marc mounted their own campaign to bring Austin home safely. They sought help from officials in Lebanon and the Czech Republic and also made countless trips to Washington, D.C. to speak to lawmakers and worked tirelessly with the press to keep Austin’s case alive.
FBI A video of Austin Tice tied up and blindfolded appeared on a Syrian Facebook page in 2012
In 2014, Debra even traveled to Syria, where she spent nearly three months handing out flyers and investigating the whereabouts of her son, who kidnapped him and why – questions she ultimately didn’t answer. could not answer.
Now, as the 10th anniversary of the Austin kidnapping approaches, the Tices are appealing to the one person in the world they believe can help: President Joe Biden.
During a meeting at the White House on May 2, the parents implored Biden to open talks with the Syrian regime.
“My son has an incredible will to live and be free,” says Debra, 61. “I beg to have him home before his next birthday on August 11.”
Courtesy of the Tice family Austin Tice in 2009
Growing up in Texas, Austin Tice seemed destined for public office or leadership from an early age. “He was born big,” Debra says. “He was speaking in complete sentences on his 1st birthday.”
For more about Austin Tice and his parents’ campaign to win his freedomget the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.
The eldest of seven children, Austin pored over the family’s set of encyclopedias during summer vacation and constantly listened to National Public Radio. At age 15, he left high school early and enrolled at the University of Houston, before transferring to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
Then he shocked his parents by announcing his intention to join the Marine Corps in 2005. “He told us, ‘I serve my country, there’s no doubt about it,'” Debra recalled. Rising to the rank of captain in the infantry, Austin served two tours of duty in Iraq, followed by another in Afghanistan as a reservist.
Courtesy of the Tice family Austin Tice in 2011
In 2012, Austin decided to try his hand at photojournalism and landed assignments with the Washington Post and the McClatchy newspapers to cover the bloody civil war in Syria. In May, he entered the country without a visa.
“He said, ‘I’m going to take pictures and help people understand,'” Debra explains. “He didn’t want children dying on the streets.”
For 83 days, Austin reported on the escalating violence in the country, while staying in constant contact with his family through emails, phone calls and Facebook posts. Every Friday, he even called his then 3-year-old niece Maia on Skype for a stand-up singing and dancing date. “No matter what he was doing, he was keeping his date,” says Debra.
Courtesy of the Tice family A family photo from 2019 showing Debra Tice with Marc and, from left, children Jon, Naomi, Jacob, Meagan, Abby and Simon
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Although Austin hasn’t been heard from since a grainy video of him tied up and blindfolded surfaced on the internet weeks after his disappearance, Tices are confident he’s still alive. And every year, the family gets together to throw a birthday party in his honor.
But as Debra looks back on her unwavering quest to bring him home, she mourns the family events her son missed and couldn’t fully enjoy. “One of my daughters planned her wedding on her own, and I came back from Damascus just in time to attend. That’s not what a mother is supposed to do,” she says. “But I have this kid who really, really needs me. He wants to walk free – and I’m the obvious person to help.”