{mosimage} The sanctity of marriage wasn’t on one Los Angeles Marine’s mind when he walked into an Arizona courthouse two days before he was deployed to Iraq in the spring of 2003. He had never even dated the woman — certainly never kissed her. She was, after all, his best friend’s sister. He had but one motivation for casually tying the knot with a woman he didn’t love: “It fattens up the paycheck.”

The arrangement was of a particular sort practiced by young soldiers in Southern California and throughout the U.S. military. Dubbed a “contract marriage,” or “marriage of convenience,” they hinge on a simple principle about the armed forces: A soldier makes more money, and has access to more privileges, if married.

The Marine, whom the L.A. Weekly agreed not to identify to protect him from a possible court-martial, joined the military in 2001, then fraudulently married the sister of a childhood pal so he could collect benefits and split them with her, his partner in crime.

Compounding his already tangled arrangement, he had a girlfriend for nine months during his marriage, which lasted 18 months. The arrangement he had with his “wife” was simple: Every month that he received extra pay for the marriage, he would give her $300. All she had to do was sign the marriage certificate and then go on her merry way. And, of course, he made a tidy profit for himself.

“I probably made an extra three grand, four grand,” he says.

The Marine’s commitment to service is now almost finished, and he plans to attend law school in Los Angeles in the fall. He says he doesn’t regret his contract marriage. “My views of marriage were already a little skewed in the first place,” he says. “It’s just two people making a financial transaction to join each other. It’s just paperwork.”

Marriage is an especially complicated ethical endeavor in the military, involving separation for months at a time, the inevitably itinerant lifestyle and, for those deployed in dangerous locations, the constant threat of premature death.

But the power of money commands tremendous influence over matrimonial decisions — especially those made by soldiers earning a meager starting wage of roughly $1,300 per month — making fraudulent marriages a common phenomenon within the junior ranks.

It’s basically an informal prenuptial agreement in reverse: Instead of agreeing to what the couple will split if they get divorced, they agree to what they will split if they get married. The two main benefits are a higher Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) — the monthly stipend paid to the soldier for shelter — and medical and dental benefits, which are extended to the spouse.

For example, an Army private living off the base in Los Angeles collects about $1,350 per month in BAH — barely enough to pay average monthly apartment rent — and that number jumps to almost $1,800 if he is married.

If he is deployed overseas, the soldier receives a monthly $250 Family Separation Allowance, sometimes referred to as “missing me” pay, to compensate both parties for their separation. In a typical arrangement, a couple in a contract marriage will divide the booty and go on with their lives as if the marriage had never happened.

For the Los Angeles–area Marine, the original impetus for his fraudulent marriage was not the cash but the chance it gave him for reprisal against a government that he believes exploited him. Outraged by the Bush administration’s justification for going to war in Iraq, he tells the Weekly he was embittered by his belief that he was sent to do the dirty work of oil companies and right-wing ideologues.

“We put this warmonger in office, and he’s turning me into a mercenary,” he insisted to the Weekly. “If you’re going to make me a mercenary, I’m going to get every last dime I can out of you.”

The marriage ultimately ended, not surprisingly, because of pressure from his real girlfriend. But he says he still has a strictly platonic relationship with his former wife. “To this day she’s just a friend. It’s a joke in passing — ‘Hey, there goes my ex-wife.’”

Sonia, 25, of La Mirada, who did not want to give her full name, entered into a contract marriage almost two years ago. Planning to join the Marines, she met her future contract husband at a military recruiting event, and initially meant only to have a casual fling before officially joining up. “It was supposed to be a wham, bam, thank you, sir,” she laughs. Then she got pregnant.

The father-to-be, a fresh Army recruit, was excited and wanted to have the baby, she says. They didn’t love each other, but she couldn’t afford a child, and she didn’t have medical insurance. Unwilling to terminate the pregnancy, she agreed to get hitched. “He said, ‘If we don’t get married, our child and you won’t be covered at all.’”

The wedding was hardly romantic. Sonia remembers the four people present as “me, him, his mom and the Internet priest guy.” She cried while saying her vows, but they weren’t tears of joy. She remembers thinking, “Oh God, I’m lying through my teeth. I don’t mean any of this.” Her new husband shipped out the next day, and she’s seen him only twice since. Months later, she says, she had to look at the marriage certificate just to remember her wedding date.

Though the marriage helped with the cost of her C-section surgery, she says it has mostly been a disaster. She claims her husband has stiffed her with dependency payments several times — twice only sending her a single dollar. Fed up, she filed for divorce from her fake marriage last November.

Such probems don’t seem to dissuade complete strangers from seeking contract marriages. Over the last year, Samantha Greenlee, a 19-year-old student at Santa Clara University and ostensible Marine magnet, got three offers to contract marry — once while casually chatting in a bar. An ex-boyfriend “got down on one knee” after a few drinks, she says, uttering the six words every hopeless romantic wants to hear: “Want to be my contract wife?”

She admits considering the proposal before politely declining, saying that she “didn’t want to take a vow I didn’t mean,” and adding, “I didn’t want to tell my parents.” Greenlee, whose parents both served in the military, claims to know eight couples in contract marriages.

Online personals like Craigslist.org often feature casual military contract-marriage proposals, each with their own matrimonial expectations and cash arrangements. One anonymous posting from San Diego’s Craigslist last December states: “Looking for a contract marriage with benefits. I have a full time job and my own place. I need the medical and a few hundred bucks to help pay bills.”

Another post expects a contract wife to fulfill sexual needs, stating, “I am looking for someone that would like to get married soon. I am in the military and would like to make use of all the benefits. I am looking for any female that is H/W proportionate, [has a] positive attitude, likes to go dancing… and is willing to experiment during sex.” One civilian, apparently seeking a potential military sugar mama, writes, “I am a 30 years old working professional looking to get married to a lady in the military for convenience.”

Sometimes, the benefits merely expedite a marriage before a couple is truly ready. Jennifer Maynard, a San Diego native, married her boyfriend, a sergeant in the Marine Corps, when she was 21 — but says they never would have married so early if not for the additional money and privileges offered by the Corps. Her husband was not allowed to move off-base while he was single, but the couple wanted to live together outside of military housing.

“The only way to do it was to get married,” she says, “so we ran off and got married!” Maynard is now 23 and just had her first child. She says she’s more than happy with the decision: “It made it so we could be together and collect the money.”

But Maynard has a female friend who got married to three different Marines, with none of the marriages lasting longer than a year (hewing to a one-year window during which she could obtain an annulment). The first marriage was just “an accident — it came up in conversation,” she says of her friend. But once she realized the moneymaking opportunities, she kept doing it.

Now Maynard says her friend has apparently found her one, true love: She is married to her fourth Marine and has no plans for a fifth.

Matthew Monroe, a North Hollywood lawyer specializing in insurance and military law, spent 30 years in the Marines and says the concept of contract marriages is not exactly new. “A lot of people have done that for a long time. Going back to 1967” and the Vietnam War era, he says. “I knew guys doing that.”

Marines stationed on the West Coast coined a name for their contract wives: “WestPac Widows” — for Western Pacific, Monroe says. The women would spend time “out there playing in the bars” while their husbands were fighting overseas, and neither party had any problem with it. According to Monroe, contract marriages are common knowledge — and aren’t a big deal. “Everybody knows about it and nobody pays attention to it,” he says.

The truth is, contract marriage is virtually impossible to prosecute, if anyone wanted to, mostly because it is impossible to determine the true intent of the parties getting married. Monroe spent 20 years in the Marines as an investigator but says he “never once investigated a case like this.” He adds, “Is it a problem? I suppose so. But how does a command monitor something like that?”

Moreover, he notes, a contract marriage is still a legal marriage, regardless of intentions. “On one hand, it’s fraud,” he says. “On the other hand, it’s legal — because you’re legally married.”

John H. Schweitzer, a San Diego divorce lawyer and captain in the Marine Forces Reserve, says contract marriage “happens more than even the military suspects,” but commanders can’t do much to curtail it. He has served as a judge advocate in the Reserve for two years, and on active duty for five, and found that contract marriage “only happens in the junior ranks.” When it does, he says, “You have to prove they didn’t get married for the ‘right’ reasons. [But] I don’t know what that means.”

Years ago, a commander asked for Schweitzer’s help in building a case against a young Marine he suspected of entering into a contract marriage. The Marine never saw his wife and partied heartily while off base, and his commander was furious about it.

But as Schweitzer advised the commander, the military can tell you where to live, where to go, how many pushups to do. It cannot, however, trample on the Fifth Amendment. “A person has a right to marriage,” says Schweitzer. “How in the hell do you give a lawful order to get divorced? It’s against public policy.” Schweitzer told his commander that the military had no power to nullify a marriage. “If two parties are married and they want to stay married, the president of the United States cannot order them to get divorced.”

Military marriage is especially rough these days, with the U.S. at war. The Army News Service reported in 2005 that Army divorces had doubled between 2000 and 2004. Among officers, divorces tripled.

When asked if he thought divorce was more widespread in the military than among civilians, Monroe replied, “Oh, hell yes. I don’t know anyone in the military that doesn’t have at least one divorce.”

Captain Schweitzer says he actively discourages young soldiers from marrying — for love or for money — and Monroe agrees. Years ago, Monroe says he and his fellow commanding officers had this gruff advice for especially green young men looking to marry prematurely: “If the Marine Corps wanted you to have a wife, they’d have issued you one.”

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.