My Friend Austin Tice

There is no way to sum up my friend Austin. When I try, I think of passion, tenacity, humor and, oddly enough, Taylor Swift. Austin is a hard-driving conflict correspondent, a former Marine, a student at Georgetown law school. But Taylor’s country pop is his favorite.

Written by Christy Wilcox Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

As I look at the calendar it’s been eight months and 23 days since I heard from Austin Tice. His last communication with me was the day he disappeared in Syria: August 13, 2012. (True to form, he tweeted this missive just two days earlier: “Spent the day at an FSA pool party with music by @taylorswift13. They even brought me whiskey. Hands down, best birthday ever.”)

It’s uncanny not to hear from him, because Austin always checks in with the friends and family he loves.

Austin is low-key, fixated more on the story than his appearance. I gave him a plain green collared shirt from Macy’s for Christmas in 2011. He smirked and said, “Do people wear shirts with pockets?”

I told him he could return it. He ended up wearing it almost daily for four months while reporting in Syria.

Later, while he was doing television interviews, he asked if I thought he needed to buy another shirt.

“I’m pretty sure people will understand you don’t have time to shop in a war zone,” I said.

*

We met several years ago at the beach in southern California. I have never met anyone who asked so many questions in the first 15 minutes of conversation. There’s no one more curious, more inquisitive, than Austin.

He’s a born photographer. When we were together the camera was always in my face. Snap, snap, snap … then he’d run off after something else that caught his attention.

I am certain this is what makes him such a good journalist.

Austin was like a kid in a candy store when he first bought his Nikon 4DS. Even with a tight schedule at Georgetown, all he wanted to do was hone his craft as a photojournalist. He practiced relentlessly.

*

Austin and I were last together in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last March. It was a Friday. We found out there was going to be a protest, so we made our way into a crowd of hundreds of Egyptians who gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy. They chanted against America and numerous NGO workers who were flown out of the country before they were put on trial.

It is seemingly dangerous for an American to cover a protest against America, but Austin didn’t think twice about capturing the entire event. He felt compelled to understand different angles of difficult stories. The same goes for the Syrian revolution. He wanted to capture stories that were rarely covered by the mainstream media.

Almost a year ago, on May 9, Austin sent a Facebook message saying he was off to Turkey. Shortly after that he arrived in Syria, and the two of us began thinking about how he could capture video stories.

He met a little girl who suffered brain damage after being struck during a conflict in Latakia province. He talked to her and befriended her family and neighbors. He even sat down and cried with them. Austin probably wouldn’t share that tale with most people, but that’s my friend – loving and big-hearted.

Later, he arrived in the Syrian village of Yabroud and immediately befriended everyone in the town. That didn’t surprise me either. He loved Syrian food, he loved the culture, and he loved the people. He repeatedly said that it was the best summer of his life. When he went missing at the end of that summer, the people of Yabroud carried posters asking for Austin’s return.

*

When he wasn’t taking photographs, you could always find him reading or writing. While in captivity, he won the Polk Award (along with his colleagues at McClatchy news service) for his reporting from Syria. I can only envision how excited he will be when he finds out.

One word keeps coming to mind when I think of Austin – persistence. He never let me let go of my dreams, nor would he let anyone else. He would hold me to doing the things I said I was going to do. The day I decided to go to Syria as a freelance video journalist, he shared every piece of information he had with me. He’s competitive, but I always knew he had my back. So when he decided it was time to go to Syria, and eventually make the risky decision to move to the suburbs of Damascus, I felt compelled to support him. Ultimately, I know nobody could have convinced him to not go.

Every now and again I send Austin a Gchat, a text or an email. Someday, when he can, he’ll reply as usual: “Hey, you wanna Skype?”

On that note, I am going to turn on Taylor Swift tonight and sing as loud as I can, just for him. Wherever Austin is, I know he’d enjoy the fact that I made Taylor a priority of this story, of his story.

(Follow the effort to free Tice at Twitter.com/FreeAustinTice.)

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