How 9/11 Changed Us: Matthew Ridout

A third of USA Today‘s stories of individuals since 9/11.  

Matthew Ridout watched the 9/11 attacks at his high school in southern Virginia.

Matthew Ridout: A conversion and a calling

A young man watches the 9/11 attacks on TV at his high school in southern Virginia and is determined afterward to serve in the military and to learn more about the attackers’ culture and creed. Those impulses propel him through the decade, taking him in unexpected vocational and spiritual directions.

By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY

9.11.2001: Matthew Ridout, a junior at Thomas DaleHigh School in Chester, Va., watches the 9/11 attacks on TV. Students in his classroom, which lacks cable, take apart a spiral notebook and make an antenna.

9.14.2001: Thomas Dale students observe a moment of silence for the victims of the attacks. Teachers and students weep openly as God Bless America plays over the public address system. Ridout, who has always dreamed of a military career, is both appalled and intrigued by the attacks. He wants to learn more about why those men committed such a crime, and what they believe.

10.5.2001: Ridout is at football practice two days before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. His teammates are confident the U.S. will “kick ass” and be done in a few months. Ridout hopes they’re right.

1.30.2002: Ridout has visited a Marines recruiter to discuss enlisting after graduation. Although his family wants Ridout to go to college, the 9/11 attacks have made him feel it’s more important than ever to participate in the national defense. The attacks also have aroused his interest in Arab culture and Islam — in part because he wants to be an intelligence officer.

3.13.2003: Ridout worries about the impending invasion of Iraq. He believes Americans are blindly following the president into an unnecessary war in the name of patriotism. “Iraq will be our next Vietnam,” he tells a friend at track practice. His pal disagrees: “We’re going to be in and out.” After the invasion, Ridout decides to put off joining the military. He enters Roanoke College in Salem, Va., where he hopes to learn more about Islam.

1.12.2004: Start of second semester at Roanoke College. Ridout is enrolled inIntroduction to Islam.” As a Christian growing up in the Bible Belt, he knows almost nothing about Islam. But he thinks it might prepare him for a career as an intelligence officer.

4.19.2004: Last day of classes. Ridout completes course work for “Intro to Islam,” which has been a revelation. He’s attracted to what he sees as Islam’s focus on peace, tolerance and justice. He’s surprised by how much Islam has in common with Christianity, yet finds it free of some Christian doctrines he can’t accept. He wants to learn more.

10.4.2005: The beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Ridout’s first as a Muslim. He formally converted in his dorm room one day in March, reciting the Islamic profession of faith: “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his messenger.”

9.13.2006: Ridout is disappointed by his campus’s tepid response to the fifth anniversary of 9/11. He helped organize remembrance ceremonies, but only a few people showed up.

5.5.2007: Ridout graduates with plans to work for Habitat for Humanity in Columbia, S.C. There, for the first time, he’ll begin attending Friday prayers at a mosque.

12.1.2008: On his 24th birthday, Ridout reports for boot camp at the Navy’s Great Lakes training center near Chicago. He has joined the Navy Reserve, realizing a longtime goal of serving in the military. He hopes the flexibility of the Reserve will allow him to continue his study of religion.

9.13.2010: Ridout begins classes at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. He is pursuing a master’s degree in religious studies and hopes eventually to get his doctorate and teach college. He feels his conversion to Islam led to a deeper curiosity about religion.

10.15.2010: Ridout learns from a fellow Navy reservist that another unit will go to Afghanistan next year. He is asked whether he knows anyone in his own unit who would want to volunteer. He says yes: “Me!” Although he opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, he thinks intervention in Afghanistan — where Osama bin Laden was based — is justified. Ridout has been in the Reserve for two years and hasn’t experienced discrimination because of his Muslim faith. But most who meet him — a white man from the Bible Belt — don’t suspect what his religion is.

5.5.2011: End of second semester at Hartford Seminary, where Ridout has completed a year’s work toward his master’s in religious studies. He hopes to return in 2012 to finish work toward his degree. But he’ll spend the next year with his Navy Reserve military police unit in Afghanistan, where as a petty officer 3rd class he’ll guard detainees — many of them Muslims like himself. He remembers the harm done by U.S. military jailers who abused prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq; he says that can’t happen again.

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