Missing journalist Austin Tice marks his 35th birthday

For the last four years, the second week in August has been challenging for Debra and Marc Tice.

On Aug. 11, they celebrate the birth of their first child, Austin, who turned 35 Thursday. Then, on Aug. 14, they confront the day he disappeared in Syria in 2012. He’s still missing.

Marc Tice says that despite the fact no one has claimed to be holding his son and no one has sent a ransom demand, he maintains “complete and unwavering confidence” that Austin Tice is alive. And he believes that at last, after several years of false starts, his son’s disappearance has become a U.S. government priority in the waning days of President Barack Obama’s final year in office.

On July 19, the Tices met with Obama at the White House, where they pressed him to try to win their son’s return before the president’s term ends. “We consider him Austin’s president,” Marc Tice said they told Obama. “We want him to not leave office with Austin still missing.”

On Thursday, the Tices, four of their other children, two sons-in-law and a granddaughter celebrated Austin Tice’s birthday with a meal at a Mexican restaurant and a show at Houston’s Miller Outdoor Theater. The theater is one of his favorite places in Houston, and they think it’s what he would want to do.

Marc Tice acknowledges that such a celebration is hard. But it’s better than the alternative of obsessing over when his son might be coming home. “We don’t want to be sitting around wringing our hands on his birthday,” he said. “We want to be celebrating his birth.”

Austin Tice was working as a freelance journalist in Syria for McClatchy, The Washington Post and other news organizations when he vanished on what was supposed to be a journey to Lebanon and a break after two and a half months covering the civil war. He had been scheduled to enter his final year of law school at Georgetown University that fall, and the Syria reporting excursion had been viewed with trepidation by his parents.

But Tice, home-schooled in a large Roman Catholic family, with six brothers and sisters, had always been adventurous. He’d been an Eagle Scout and a Marine Corps officer. He wrote on his Facebook page that his foray in Syria was in part a search to shake off what he felt had become a horribly risk-averse national outlook. “Our granddads would have whipped our asses,” he wrote.

He stayed in touch as he traveled in Syria, emailing with his father on the day before he vanished from Darayya, a rebel-occupied town south of Damascus. That would be the last communication Marc Tice would receive from his son. Aug. 14 would be the first day of what has now been four years of silence. The only proof of Austin Tice’s situation came in a video posted on the internet six weeks later that showed him being guided up a hill by a group of armed men.

There’s little hard public information on what has happened to him since. The Syrian government denies holding him, and he is not thought ever to have been held by the Islamic State, which executed three other American hostages two years ago. The State Department declines to provide specifics, citing privacy concerns.

“We are deeply concerned about the well-being of Austin Tice,” Elizabeth Kennedy Trudeau, a State Department spokeswoman, said in response to a request for comment. “His case has the attention of the highest levels in the U.S. government and the administration.”

“We are still working constantly in every direction we can” to win his freedom, his father said.

Those efforts have meant five trips to the region for the Tices to publicize their son’s plight and endless conversations with a wide range of officials, former officials and interested parties. A publicity campaign organized by the Paris-based Reporters without Borders helped raise awareness of his disappearance. The families of the executed Americans, James Foley, Steven Sotloff and Peter Kassig, and of Kayla Mueller, an American who died in uncertain circumstances while in Islamic State custody, have written letters and lobbied the U.S. government to press harder on Austin Tice’s behalf.

Most encouraging has been what Marc Tice calls a change in the commitment of the Obama administration to help negotiate their son’s return home. After years in which administration hostage policy was seen as largely unhelpful, U.S. officials now seem more committed to finding a way to make Austin Tice part of their priorities.

The idea of having to start over with a new administration is “really a painful thought,” Marc Tice said.

Their hope: The Obama administration will take advantage of any opportunity to bring their son into discussions about Syria policy.

“Any ongoing decisions might help in bringing Austin home,” Marc Tice said.

In the meantime, the hunt has been an eye-opening experience, he said, and one that’s left him impressed by the resilience and goodwill of people. “I keep a list of everybody we talk to,” he recalled. “If it were a Rolodex, it would be amazing: former officials, businesspeople, support from such an incredibly diverse cross section of humankind.”

Every week, one or two people still contact them, offering support.

The Tices are waiting for it all to pay off. As for success, “we only have one measure,” he said.

Mark Seibel: 202-383-6027, @markseibel