It's an open secret at military bases across the country: Soldiers looking for contract marriages. On Craigslist you'll find dozens of ads, many so blatant that soldiers put the term right on the subject line, not even trying to hide it.
If you're married in the military, you make more money and get better benefits. So soldiers from the Army, the Navy and all branches of the military pay women to marry them, just to get the perks on the taxpayer's dime.
"These guys are criminals," said Col. Jack Jacobs, a 20-year Army veteran and Medal of Honor recipient for his actions during the Vietnam War. "There's no doubt about it."
Jacobs, a military analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, says these soldiers aren't looking for love; they want that marriage certificate. And it pays off: A married soldier can make tens of thousands of dollars more than a single one.
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"It's a great proposition as far as he's concerned," Jacobs said. "He'll get N dollars, N being a substantial amount of money. He'll give her a portion of that. And she'll get free medical care. From his standpoint, [it's] great."
But from a taxpayer's standpoint, it's "a terrible deal," Jacobs added. "This is not a victimless crime. This is money coming out of the pockets of taxpayers, money that is supposed to be in the defense of the republic."
To show how it works, the Rossen Reports team responded to a Craigslist ad. Contract marriage was right in the subject line: “Looking for a contract marriage with someone seeking little or no money and a free place to live.”
Rossen Reports producer Jovanna Billington was wired with hidden cameras for a meeting with the soldier who posted the ad, based at the Fort Stewart Army base in eastern Georgia.
The soldier, who is not being identified by NBC News, got right down to business. "You actually have to like write up an actual contract," he said. "With all the parameters of what everybody wants."
"So you're getting more money from doing this?" Billington asked.
"Almost $1000 just for being married," the soldier said. "And another $350 for BAS, which is base allowance for subsistence."
"So you would want to do it like next week?" Billington asked.
"Well, if I could, I would do it today," the soldier said. "We could just try to get this done."
And what does the "wife" get out of the deal? "You get health care, and a lot more schools will take military spouses," the soldier said. "If you need some money, then that's not an issue."
The soldier offered Billington $200 a month to start with: "Would that work for you? We'll give you $200 for the first month just to start and then we'll see how everything falls with bills and everything."
"So this is a full business relationship, right?" Billington asked.
"You can see other people, you can do whatever you want," the soldier said. "It's like I'm not even here. You're just getting free [stuff]."
After the meeting on hidden camera, Jeff Rossen identified himself to the soldier and revealed that Billington was a member of the Rossen Reports team. "You just offered her money to marry you," Rossen said. "Why?"
"So I can help support my son," the soldier said.
"How common is this in the military?" Rossen asked.
"I've heard of it a lot," the soldier said.
"A lot of your fellow soldiers?"
In a statement to NBC News, the Army said fraudulent marriages are "inconsistent with Army values and ethics" and that soldiers doing it could face "administrative and punitive actions." Among the stronger actions that could be taken: dishonorable discharge and prison time.
"It's a very big deal indeed," Jacobs said. "They are taking money out of taxpayers' pockets. And they're really taking money out of the pockets of soldiers who come by these benefits honestly."
The Army said they investigate sham marriages, but a spokesman said, "I cannot discuss how the Army conducts investigations." When asked how many soldiers have been caught and disciplined, the Department of Defense said that they don't keep those numbers.
Statement from the Department of Defense in response to this report:
"Like most allegations of fraud/false official statement of one type or another, this would be a service and command-level issue, so you would need to contact the individual services to address your questions.
However, I can tell you that whether a marriage is valid is a matter of state law. If a command received information, and it appeared that one of the parties to the invalid marriage had received improper benefits, the military service could investigate. If such an investigation determined that the marriage was void from the beginning, disciplinary or adverse administrative action against the service member could be taken.
Commanders do not have the authority to prevent someone from getting married. Marriage is a personal, private decision, and "why" someone chooses to enter into a legal union is not a command issue. Rather, the issue is whether a service member can provide the necessary legal documents to the Service that he or she is married, thus entitling his/her spouse to dependent benefits. Subsequent divorce will terminate spousal benefits, except in specific cases (where a couple has been married for 20 years or more, with 20 years of more of military service overlap -- "the 20/20/20 Rule").
Likewise, Service commanders may suspend or revoke a dependent's privileges in specific instances (i.e. shoplifting at Exchange/Commissary or purchasing items for unauthorized persons). Dependents can be barred from base housing or the base itself, by the installation commander for significant misconduct. For further information on suspension or revocation of certain privileges, see DoD Instruction (DoDI) 1330.17, "Armed Services Commissary Operations" (8 October 2008), or Air Force Instruction (AFI) 34-211(I), "Army and Air Force Exchange Service Operations" (30 July 2008)."
LCDR Nate Christensen
DoD Spokesman, Defense Press Office, Personnel and Readiness
Statement from the U.S. Army in response to this report:
"Marriage is a personal, private decision between adults, so the Army does not question a Soldier's marital decisions without cause. Soldiers must possess all necessary legal documents verifying their marriage before receiving benefits. The Army investigates fraudulent marriage allegations involving Soldiers. Any Soldier in a fraudulent marriage potentially is in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and could face administrative and punitive actions. Fraudulent marriages are not condoned by the military and are inconsistent with the Army values and ethics we require from our Soldiers."