Widower of gay Marine shown respect by Naval Academy, thanks to marriage
John Fliszar, who served two tours as a Marine pilot in Vietnam, died last year after suffering his second heart attack. John married Mark Ketterson in Iowa two years ago, and after his first heart attack told him that he wanted his ashes interred at his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.
When Mark contacted the Academy about John's wishes, he says that at first officials were skeptical. But after he sent them a copy of their marriage license, he was treated as next of kin – from the military funeral service to an announcement in the USNA alumni magazine. Would the same have happened if the couple had a civil union rather than a marriage license? Probably not.
The emotional story was published in the Chicago Sun-Times:
John Fliszar had a heart attack in 2006 and was rushed to Illinois Masonic Medical Center.
“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 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.”
… 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.”
Even with the coming end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the Pentagon says legally married spouses of currently serving gay military members won't be eligible for health benefits or base housing available to married straight couples. The so-called Defense of Marriage Act prohibits federal recognition of marriages between same-sex couples even when they’ve been legally married.