Gay Spouse's Bittersweet Story Of Military Support

Last July, John "Rip" Fliszar, a proud graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, died of a heart attack. Among his survivors is his husband, Mark Ketterson, who remembered that Rip always said he wanted his ashes interred at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Host Scott Simon speaks to Ketterson about the support that the U.S. Naval Academy provided for the gay couple.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

John Fliszar, whose nickname was "Rip," was a hero. He was a U.S. Marine aviator who served two tours in Vietnam, and was shot down twice. Last July, Rip Fliszar, who was a proud graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, class of 1971, died of a heart attack. Among his survivors is his husband, Mark Ketterson, who remembered that Rip always said he wanted his ashes to be interred at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Mark Ketterson joins us from the studios of Chicago Public Radio.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. MARK KETTERSON: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: And what happened, Mr. Ketterson, when you got the U.S. Naval Academy on the phone, and to state the obvious, here was one man calling about his husband who is a man?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KETTERSON: I would say the reason it was perhaps eventful was because of how uneventful it was, if that makes sense.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KETTERSON: It's, you know, Scott, things happen when a story like gets out on the Internet and I've seen some things online in the last week or so that have kind of painted me as little bit of a gay marriage Rambo, if you will. I mean that, you know, some folks have kind of turned this into a well, a bit of a David and Goliath story...

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

MR. KETTERSON: ...which it absolutely was not. I mean the reason this experience was powerful for me. And I think as it is emerging is potentially notable for others is that this was not a story of someone having to fight for respect and winning. It was a story of respect being freely given.

Something was said at first - some mention was made that while they might need a blood relative to be involved as next of kin, you know, because I'd identified myself as the husband. And obviously I'm not inside anyone's heads, but I have to tell you even at that point that didn't feel like anything resistant or anything contentious.

I think, Scott, frankly it was just a matter of they had not encountered this before. And some decisions had to be made. And I'm sure some supervisors had to be consulted and so on and so forth. I want to make it absolutely clear that the men and the women at the USNA, from that first phone call, from that first contact, were unfailingly kind and supportive and helpful in every way they could be.

SIMON: And he was very proud of his Naval Academy background, wasn't he?

Mr. KETTERSON: He absolutely was. It was so much a part of his personhood. And in a wonderful way became a part of our relationship.

I mean, academy stories were - I learned very quickly not to serve Brussels sprouts to this person because he told me a story of his plebe year at the academy.

There were Brussels sprouts. He did not eat his Brussels sprouts. Someone asked - an upperclassman asked why he didn't eat them. And he made the mistake of saying I don't like Brussels sprouts, sir. And as he was in the class of '71, he was made to eat 71 Brussels sprouts. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KETTERSON: ...so he - that was something he stayed away from the rest of his life.

SIMON: How did you meet Rip?

Mr. KETTERSON: I met Rip online actually. He and I had both - Rip and I had both had previous longstanding relationships. We both lost our former partners to death. You know, I think we found each other and there was an unspoken understanding that the four of us sort of lived together in that house, as it were.

There were photos of all of us around. And now it's just me. But that's the story.

SIMON: Yeah. Were you surprised at the unsurprising reaction of the U.S. Naval Academy?

Mr. KETTERSON: You know, I have to say no. I'm an Army brat actually. My own background: I'm from Tennessee. And my father was actually the assistant head of Selective Service in Tennessee. So the military ethos is, you know, not unfamiliar to me. I already know there's a lot of cool people in the military.

I'm sure that some of the people I dealt with who held their private feelings and were maybe personally not supportive of gay marriage or gays in the military or whatever. But when they were faced with this situation where the task was to honor a veteran, to treat his family with respect, all that was set aside and they ended up making me feel very proud to be an American. And I think they would've made him very proud.

SIMON: Mr. Ketterson, thanks so much.

Mr. KETTERSON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Mark Ketterson is a social worker and opera critic in Chicago. And he was married to the late John "Rip" Fliszar, U.S. Naval Academy class of '71.

(Soundbite of music)

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