For same-sex couples, the license makes a difference

Navy alumnus laid to rest with full honors, at his husband's request

February 09, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

In the middle of Maryland's debate over same-sex marriage comes Mark Thomas Ketterson, folded American flag cradled in his hands, with simple eloquence in 10 words: "I didn't blaze any trail. I buried my husband." With that, Mr. Ketterson pretty much summarizes the case for equal rights for homosexuals seeking to be legally married in Maryland or any other state. His story also presents a side serving of revelation about the American military establishment in the waning days of "don't ask, don't tell."

Mr. Ketterson, a middle-aged man who lives on the north side of Chicago, first came to our attention by way of Neil Steinberg, columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. The headline over Mr. Steinberg's Feb. 3 column jumped off the page: "Gay Marine's husband surprised at respect shown by Naval Academy."

The gay Marine was John Fliszar.

Mr. Fliszar had attended the Naval Academy. He had rugged, movie-star looks and played football. He was a member of the 1971 graduating class, went into the Marines and became an aviator. While in training at Pensacola, Fla., he chose "Ripper" as his flight call name; soon friends were calling him Rip. In two tours in Vietnam, he received a wound to the ankle that so limited him physically, he was forced to retire in 1978.

After military service, John Fliszar studied horticulture, became a master gardener and owner of a landscaping company.

When he and Mr. Ketterson met several years ago, they had both lost longtime partners to death. They were married in Iowa two years ago, after gay marriage became legal in that state.

Mr. Fliszar died of a heart attack last summer. He was 61.

Mr. Ketterson remembered a promise he had made to his husband — that Mr. Fliszar's remains be cremated and that his ashes be interred at Annapolis, in the Naval Academy's columbarium, a long, marble vault next to the school's cemetery on College Creek.

Mr. Ketterson made that request to the academy's memorial coordinator. The memorial coordinator asked about his relationship to Mr. Fliszar. Mr. Ketterson said Mr. Fliszar was his husband.

"They were always polite, but there was this moment of hesitation," Mr. Ketterson recalled. "They asked, 'Are you listed on the death certificate?' 'Do you have a marriage license?'"

The answer to both those questions was yes, and that's what made the difference. This could have turned out to be the troubling story of a stubborn military academy refusing to honor a request from a gay Marine's grieving partner. Instead, John Fliszar received full academy honors, at his spouse's request.

Mr. Ketterson mailed a copy of his marriage license to the academy and, from that point on, the academy followed procedure.

The USNA's alumni association sent Mr. Ketterson a letter of condolence and published Mr. Fliszar's obituary in its magazine, Shipmate. The obituary noted that Mr. Fliszar was "survived by his husband, Mark Thomas Ketterson."

The memorial service was in October in the academy chapel. "They did the standard military funeral, a wonderful service," Mr. Ketterson told the Sun-Times. "Since I was the designated next of kin, they were going to present the flag to me, but I deferred to [Mr. Fliszar's] mom. She gave it to me."

Mr. Ketterson was surprised and happy with the academy's response. "I was respected. I was next of kin. They were amazing," he said.

"It's been some months. I'm still doing mourning," he told Mr. Steinberg. "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."

A spokesman for the academy said Mr. Ketterson was "treated with the same dignity and respect afforded to the next of kin of all USNA grads who desire interment at the columbarium. We didn't do anything differently."

The key was a marriage license from a state where same-sex marriage is legal. The academy had a procedure. Once it was clear that Mr. Ketterson was next of kin, the academy followed that procedure, no more questions asked. This is how the end of don't ask, don't tell might look throughout the military: rules made clear, procedure followed, everyone treated equally.

In an e-mail, an academy graduate hailed Mr. Ketterson as a trailblazer.

But, Mr. Ketterson demurred. "I didn't blaze any trail," he said. "I buried my husband."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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