“When I was in the emergency room with him, he asked me to promise him, if he died, to make sure his ashes were interred in the Naval Academy,” said Mark Ketterson. “He loved that place. He very much wanted to be there.”
Fliszar, a Marine aviator who served two tours in Vietnam, survived that heart attack. But last July the Albany Park resident suffered another one that killed him at age 61.
Hoping to fulfill Fliszar’s wishes, Ketterson contacted the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and told them that Fliszar, Class of ’71, had wanted to have his ashes interred at the USNA’s Columbarium, a serene white marble waterside crypt next to the school’s cemetery.
The memorial coordinator asked about his relationship to the deceased. Ketterson said that John Fliszar was his husband.
“They were always polite, but there was this moment of hesitation,” Ketterson recalled. “They said they’re going to need something in writing from a blood relative. They asked, ‘Are you listed on the death certificate?’ ‘Do you have a marriage license?’ ”
He was and they did, the couple having been married in Des Moines when gay marriage became legal in Iowa two years ago.
Ketterson sent a copy of the marriage license. That changed everything.
“I was respected,” he said. “From that moment on, I was next of kin. They were amazing.”
The USNA alumni association sent Ketterson a letter expressing condolence for the loss of his husband.
The USNA says Fliszar’s interment followed standard operating procedure.
“His next of kin was treated with the same dignity and respect afforded to the next of kin of all USNA grads who desire interment at the Columbarium,” said Jennifer Erickson, a spokesperson for the academy. “We didn’t do anything differently.”
Shipmate magazine, the publication of the USNA’s alumni association, ran Fliszar’s obituary. It noted his two Purple Hearts for “having been shot down from the sky twice in military missions.” It noted “for the rest of his life he would joke about his ‘government issued ankle.’ ” It noted “his burly but warmly gentle manner.” It noted he was “survived by his husband, Mark Thomas Ketterson.”
“The word ‘husband’ in the obituary has created a bit of a stir,” said Ketterson, a Chicago social worker. “I’ve heard from a number of officers. It’s been amazing. This has not been absolutely confirmed, but I think I’m the first legal same-sex spouse who planned a memorial.”
The memorial service was held in October, in “the beautiful, beautiful Naval Academy chapel,” said Ketterson. A uniformed officer stood in the back and played taps.
“They did the standard military funeral, a wonderful service,” said Ketterson. “Since I was the designated next of kin, they were going to present the flag to me, but I deferred to his mom. She gave it to me.”
One of the groups Ketterson heard from afterward was USNA-Out, the organization for gay graduates of the naval academy.
“From my perspective, attitudes and actions are changing at the Naval Academy and certainly at the alumni association,” said Brian Bender, chair of USNA-Out, observing that while he “can’t speak for the Navy as a whole, we do interact with active-duty Navy folks, and they check in with their chain of command.”
I tried to find someone who could speak for the Navy as a whole, but with whatever era replaces “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’ still in its infancy, well, let’s say that Navy communications specialists are not jostling each other for the chance to address this subject.
While the public generally approved of the official end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’ in the U.S. military, the details still need to be worked out. The thorny issue isn’t ending the costly and counterproductive practice of forcing gays out of military services — that cost $40 million a year to enforce and deprived the armed services of thousands of qualified personnel. A bigger challenge is the question of entitlements: Who is a survivor? Who gets military benefits?
A marriage certificate was the key that let the USNA know how to treat Ketterson in relation to his husband’s service. Gays in the military and gay marriage are thought of as separate issues, but without legal gay marriage, or at least civil unions, how can the military know who gets the folded flag?
Such practical concerns were far from Ketterson’s mind when he and Fliszar got married after dating for six years — “because I loved him and he asked me,” Ketterson said, adding that the USNA alumni he’s heard from have made grieving more bearable.
“It’s been some months. I’m still doing mourning,” Ketterson said. “As a gay man who grew up in a military family, getting communications from USNA, having heard from alumni who say, ‘You will always be one of us’ — that’s powerful, and healing.”
“One of the e-mails said that I was a ‘trailblazer,’ ’’ said Ketterson. “I didn’t blaze any trail. I buried my husband.”
That said, he still finds himself marveling at how it all unfolded.
“I am a patriotic American, but I know this is not a perfect world,” he said. “The point is, when the chips are down, when the issue was patriotism and honor for a veteran, they were wonderful. Whatever their private feelings, they made me proud to be an American. We really do get it right sometimes.”