Sunday, June 28, 2015

"We really do get it right sometimes"

John Fliszar and Mark Ketterson

     There will be a lot of hoopla today at the Gay Pride Parade, and rightly so. The Supreme Court deciding to recognize the basic humanity of gays and lesbians is a cause for celebration. And up until late Saturday I was going to post a festive look at the parade.
     But I got to thinking. This is an important moment, yes, for wedding vows and sugary cake and love. But it also represents a serious acknowledgement by society, one that is a few thousand years overdue. 
     To underscore that, I'm reprinting a column I wrote in 2011. At the time it was given most of front page of the Sun-Times, because it was surprising that the Navy would treat this gay vet's husband with respect. Treating a deceased vet's spouse with respect was news. Now it's the law of the land. Look how far we've come in four years. Today the only strange thing is that anyone could be against it. But people are. Remember, all Republican presidential candidates are vowing to fight this overdue show of human decency, to one degree or another. Victory doesn't mean the battle is over, because there are still those who would take it away. They'll fail, but that doesn't mean they won't have to be vigorously opposed. Not today, today is for celebrating. But soon the work continues.

     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 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."
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 30, 2011


  1. As a Navy veteran myself I'm pleased to hear that the Naval Academy did the right thing re Mr. Flizar but not totally surprised. Military service leadership tends to be politically conservative, particularly the Army, which has an even more Southern cast then the other services, but the forces they lead are, on average, young, so they have to stay in touch with evolving opinions. Also, they tend to be pragmatic. When Harry Truman integrated the services in 1948 the Army fought a rear guard action, arguing that integration would destroy "unit cohesion," the same argument that was used against gays years later. However, when things were going badly during the Korean war they found that keeping black soldiers out of front line units imposed a severe burden on the personnel assignment system. As students of military history, who know that soldiers fight and die for their comrades as much as for their country, might have predicted, the blacks performed well and were found to bleed the same color blood as whites.

    When the decision to do away with "Don't ask, don't tell," (A coinage created by Northwestern University's Charlie Moscos, who said at the time that hypocrisy sometimes serves a useful purpose.) and stop kicking gays out, the resistance faded more quickly, not only because it wasn't an issue with young soldiers, but because of the cost. Not only was it expensive to hunt down and discharge gay soldiers, but the ones lost tended to be in those Military Occupational Specialties that were hardest to recruit and costliest to train.

    Tom Evans

  2. A perfect day to revisit this moving piece; we've finally discovered the path we should have taken long ago.

  3. It was a good thing when the army finally integrated in the late 1940's.

    And wasn't that argument used on woman in certain military positions as well? That they'd be a burden?

  4. Women being assigned to the combat arms is still being debated. They want it because service in the combat branches is a prerequisite for the top jobs. But not many have the upper body strength and endurance expected of an infantryman.

    Over the years military service, for all its many disadvantages, has often been transforming. Harry Truman's Executive order preceded the Civil rights act by six years and many Blacks have found the military offered a path to upward mobility. Old Harry started abandoning his southern segregationist inclinations when he heard stories about German POW's in the south being treated better by the locals than the black troupers guarding them.

    As the WW I song had it "How you going to keep em down on the farm, Once they have seen Paree?." And many people found ways to express their disparate sexual identities during their WW II service. A book dealing with the subject, called "The Army as the School of the Nation" seems to be out of print.

    Tom Evans

    1. I agree about the upper body strength, Tom.

      I understand some lately were trying to be navy seals but didn't make it.

    2. Well his being from Missouri, I wouldn't think of Truman as a true southerner. Remember they never left the union or seceded, even if they did have slavery many years before.

    3. It was Army Rangers training where all eight women failed the final physical assessment. Three recently passed on their second try. The SEALs are not yet open to women, but they're considering it.

    4. whatever, oh my, you are always there to correct , aren't you Coey, same to another person on the other blog here, EXCUSE ME, you know all, this isn't a dissertation here you know

    5. Female navy seals may be coming soon- I'd like to see Coey undergo that training

    6. I could definitely use some work on my upper body strength, but I'm a hair over the age limit.

    7. Touchy much, Anon?

    8. b****y much, Coey?

    9. oops, bitter is sounding bitter again, disregard 10:37 and not minding his own business

    10. Hey, I'm not the one who lost my shit because someone knew more about a topic than I did.

  5. That "Whatever their private feelings.." needed to be said shows that despite the fine treatment Mr. Ketterson received from the Navy, he retained a suspicion that the people treating him so well might still be harboring prejudices. A bit sad perhaps, but a lesson that doing the right thing might indeed lead to thinking the right thoughts...but not right away.


  6. Justice Clarence Thomas might understand the meaning of dignity after reading this column. If not, perhaps he should be transported to the South 150 years ago to learn the meaning of dignity lost.

  7. Thomas is an Uncle Tom


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