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Father honors fallen son

The father of a young airman who gave his life for his country has made sure that Oak Harbor will never forget the contributions made by his son.

Last Friday, the day before Sept. 11, a new park bench with memorial plaque was installed at Veterans Park.

The plaque memorializes Air Force Staff Sgt. Juan M. Ridout, a 1990 graduate of Oak Harbor High School. He died at the age of 29 in February, 2002, when the helicopter he was riding in crashed on a mission in the Philippines.

Since his son’s death, Michael Ridout, an Army retiree now working in civil service, has been looking for a way to keep his son’s memory alive in Oak Harbor. Juan Ridout was buried in Corpus Christi, Texas, near his mother, who died at the age of 30 from cancer. Michael’s daughter and Juan’s sister, Jessica, still lives there.

As the bench was installed by city Parks Director Hank Nydam, Michael Ridout, his wife Olivia and his step-daughters Rochelle Pierzchala and Shanelle Lombard looked on, their eyes expressing that combination of intense pride and sadness known to loved ones of those who gave their lives for their county.

Juan Ridout was an easy-going, friendly youth who preferred working after school to athletics when he was in high school. “He had lots of friends, he was well liked. He worked at Thriftway for four years,” Michael Ridout recalled. “He was in the service seven years, but he came home a lot.”

It wasn’t until after Juan had died that Michael learned of some of the heroics his son had been involved in while a member of Air Force Special Operations. An Air Force contingent brought him a large photograph of a helicopter, it crew and a rescued pilot. Juan has saved the pilot after he bailed out behind enemy lines when his F-16 was hit by a missile over Serbia.

Juan Ridout, a parachute jumper, came to the pilot’s rescue on May 2, 1999. Michael put what he learned about the mission on Juan’s plaque: “Surrounded by enemy troops, Ssgt. Ridout fought his way in and pulled the pilot out of harm’s way -- a true hero.”

Juan didn’t talk much about his exploits with the secretive Special Forces unit, according to his father. “Juan never told me about saving this guy’s life,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about that, but he was very devoted, doing what he wanted to do.”

Juan Ridout was killed doing his part in the war on terror during Operation Enduring Freedom. On Feb. 22, 2002 the Army MH-47 E helicopter he was riding in crashed off Basilan Island, Philippines, after dropping off Special Forces teams in support of counter-terrorism operations against Abu Sayef, a guerilla group with links to Al Qaeda.

Michael Ridout waited months before finding out the details of the accident that killed his son and 9 others. “The pilot fell asleep; killed all 10 people,” he said.

Installing the memorial bench culminated a two-year effort by Ridout, Nydham and the city’s Parks Board. The concrete bench and brass plaque cost Ridout about $1,000, but he was pleased with the result.

The memorial bench sits below a waving U.S. flag, between Skagit Valley College and Oak Harbor Bay, a popular place for students particularly to sit in the sun and enjoy the view. Now, one of Oak Harbor’s home-grown heroes, Juan Miguel Ridout, will be remembered on a daily basis.

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