Being in the Navy seems like the perfect time to be single. Sailors are young, many just out of high school. They’re always traveling the world. Reaching a foreign port is one of the craziest parties imaginable.
The ship’s crew — mostly male — gets obliterated and goes wild in an unfamiliar land with unfamiliar women. We’d get off the boat, feeling like celebrities with 50 to 100 cab drivers waiting for us, charging only $5 American to take us anywhere we pleased. I would be at a bar and see male shipmates with at least one Asian prostitute hanging on their arms.
“Six hundred baht,” a pretty Thai girl would say. “Six hundred baht all night long.”
Six hundred baht was about $20 American, so for a minimum ATM withdrawal a man could have his way with a woman all night. I was 20, from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and shocked to see officers and gentlemen French-kissing prostitutes and using those same lips on their wives and children a few months later. I loved being the one to call them out.
“Dude, why are you kissing her?” I’d ask a guy with his Thai rental. “Do you know where her mouth’s been today? You really think she brushed her teeth?”
With a mouth like mine, it wasn’t long before I discovered how the Navy gets back at those who dare to cross the lines.
What was bizarre to me when I first entered the Navy was how everyone was married, young and old. The oldest ones were usually on their second, third, and fourth marriages, but everyone was in love with someone. Sailors fell in love fast, married fast, and cheated fast. Divorce was not uncommon. Many sailors were married but never spoke of their spouses at all. In fact, you would never know they were married. When I finally looked at the pay charts, everything began to make sense.
Basic allowance for housing (BAH) is what members of the military receive if they have dependents, which includes nonmilitary spouses. It is tax-free money that provides couples with a place to live, along with the other comforts of home. Single sailors were forced to live on the ship. We slept in tiny beds where the mattress lifted up like a coffin lid and you stored your things inside, but the lids were heavy and could easily crush fingers or heads. It was bad enough that I worked long hours on the ship, but I lived there, too.
The ship was cold, uncomfortable, noisy, and had a musty stench that reminded me of my grandmother’s moldy basement. I hated waking up in my coffin, unable to sit up, afraid to roll out because it was up high. Drowsy, I would jump down onto the cold hard deck, hoping that I’d land right. The constant echo of Navy terminology over the ship’s intercom made sleeping in or napping nearly impossible. I still remember irritating announcements: Reveille, reveille! All hands heave out! Muster Duty Section on the quarterdeck! Ship life drove me crazy.
I missed the little things, such as sitting on a couch, sleeping in a real bed, or being able to walk barefoot in my kitchen while eating cereal in my pajamas. I was unhappy. The Navy was suffocating me. It seemed that everyone around me was falling in love, getting married, and soon had a home. In a moment of intense frustration, I called my friend Will, who had just been discharged.
Will wasn’t a fan of the Navy either. He had developed severe insomnia and depression during his last deployment and separated from the service for medical reasons. Will and I were shipmates on the USS Higgins. We weren’t close friends, but for my 19th birthday on May 28, 2004, I went to Rosarito with a group of friends, including Will. We had an odd love/hate relationship. I irritated him, he picked on me, but somehow we got along that way. We ended up getting extremely intoxicated and started making out on the beach. The next thing I knew, we were in the back of a truck being sent to jail. Our friends rescued us, and we had that memory of being locked up in Mexico together.
As far as the make-out session went, it was an odd, drunken one-time thing of being young, stupid, and new to the military. The fact that we had no chemistry beyond friendship was the reason I wanted to marry him. I knew that a marriage for money should be strictly platonic, and we kept it that way.
“We’ll be roommates,” I told Will. “I’ll have a place off the ship to live, and you will live rent-free.”
“You know, I might be down with that.” Will’s response was typical. He was tall, thin, with dark hair and drowsy eyes that never had an intense expression about anything. He came from a good home in Alabama and had a kind face and good heart, but this clashed with Will’s twisted, cynical sense of humor.
“Okay, I’ll do it,” he said.
“Wow,” I said. “Okay, I guess we’re engaged.” Sarcasm was my second language.
We giggled hysterically. We laughed about our marriage throughout its entire 31-month existence.
Kissing my husband on the lips was the most awkward thing I’ve ever done.
I was quivering — not out of passion or even love — but out of nervousness, thinking, “How am I going to pull this off?”
Will and I got married on January 5, 2005, the day before my first anniversary of joining the Navy. I wore a black blouse and a leopard skirt, trying to be especially tacky. Will was in a pair of casual jeans, flip-flops, sporting his new chin piercing. We stood facing each other. I looked at Will, unshaven and mellow. I was jumpy and rushed. Our clerk at the downtown courthouse, a short, stocky, middle-aged woman, smiled at us sweetly. But I could see in her eyes that she knew we were full of it.
I was grateful, though. She was giving me one fabulous wedding gift — an extra $1452 a month, tax-free, basically doubling my pay.
Will and I held hands, she began reading wedding vows. That was when tears streamed down my face. That’s how hard I was laughing. The vows were brief, but not brief enough. I could barely contain myself by the time I stuttered, “I-I d-d-d-o!”
We kissed, a tight peck on the lips.
“No chemistry,” I thought.
Will and I agreed on that one.
My face was flushed from laughter.
“I can’t believe I married you,” Will muttered, shaking his head.
As a little girl, I visualized my first wedding as a romantic experience, with me dressed in a beautiful white gown, reciting vows to the one I loved. I never would have imagined a 20-minute session for $100. Then again, I never would have imagined that my job would consist of outdoor labor in the scorching summer of the Persian Gulf. I sanded rust, chipped paint, and repainted a U.S. Navy ship, kneeling on the burning, rough deck. I ended a work day with paint and dirt under my nails, my uniform drenched in sweat.
I recalled the theme from the Navy recruiting commercials: “Accelerate your life.”
Accelerate your life! Yeah, right! Those back-stabbers. What had I gotten myself into?
I shocked my family by joining the Navy. I shocked myself, but I was desperate. Born in South Carolina and raised in Tennessee, I was never a Southern girl at heart. I came from a great family, but something about me felt out of place. I was that typical teenage girl with problems: insecure, never cool enough, never pretty enough, anorexic at 12, and obsessively bulimic from 14 to 18.
I was an experimental young partier and vicious toward my sweet mother. I moved in with my boyfriend Jerry when I was 17, living in a house I called the “box in the middle of nowhere.” It was in Sale Creek, Tennessee, surrounded by run-down trailers, mangy chow dogs, neighbors with missing teeth, and all the crystal meth you could snort. One morning, I awoke from my love spell to see that Jerry would never match my ambitions. My bulimia had become so bad that I was vomiting four times a day and bleeding from my ears. Something inside of me said, “Get out, Maggie. Get out of the box and leave everything, quick!”
I made my decision and never looked back. My recruiter was a big, husky African-American man who reminded me of a grizzly bear. I timidly walked into his office.
“Hey, you!” the big guy shouted. “You ready to join the Navy?”
He caught me off-guard.
“Well, yeah, but I need money first.”
“No, you don’t. The Navy pays you. You don’t need nothin’!”
A month later, I was shipped off to Knoxville to take my military entry test and get every inch of my body poked and prodded to make sure I was ready. When it came to my job assignment, I wanted to be a Navy journalist. They told me no. I started to walk away.
“No. Wait!” A masculine, dark-haired woman with a stack of paperwork in her hands stopped me. “You can enter the Navy undesignated, without a job. Then you can choose later. You can wait a few months to be a journalist.”
Eight months later, on my knees chipping paint, I remembered her lies.
That was just the first time I got screwed over by the Navy. Everybody has a story about getting screwed over, every one of us.
I endured boot camp in frigid, windy Great Lakes, Illinois. Four months after that, I was shipped to the USS Higgins in San Diego, a place with no Navy journalists aboard, where I would be doing what we called “slave work.” I wanted out. I was broke and hard work meant nothing.
“If the government can utilize me, I can utilize the government,” I decided.
My Navy honeymoon lasted 18 months, until I became a statistic in an unwinnable war. I’m not talking about Iraq. I’m talking about trading marriage for a decent paycheck. We didn’t cheat the system, we used it. My pay went from $1384.30 (not including taxes) to $2836.30 a month, tax-free. This is not counting the extra $250 a month of family-separation pay when I was on deployment. Sure, I wasn’t in love. It wasn’t your typical marriage, but what marriage is? We were buddies, we communicated and shared. I supported him, and we got along much better than the majority of Navy couples that I have known. Life was much more comfortable for the both of us, and finally I had an escape from the ship and the coffin rack. I gained a little bit of sanity and lost a little stress.
But low-stress life never lasts long in the Navy. On September 12, 2006, I walked into the NCIS office and sat down with Darnita Brown. She was a young, attractive, pregnant African-American woman. She looked sweet, maternal, not intimidating — at first. We began talking about her baby and other casual things that women talk about. Then Brown told me that we were being recorded. I began to get nervous.
“Do you know why you’re here?” she asked.
“No,” I said. I had an idea, but I was in complete denial.
“You’re being accused of committing fraud,” she said. I was terrified. My body grew weak, and my hands began to shake. I wanted to run, cry, scream, and throw up, all at once. I was interrogated for several hours. According to the documents she gave me, I had the basic criminal rights. I could remain silent and end the interview, but a combination of the investigators telling me it would look bad on my record and my own fear made me do otherwise. I thought I could fake my way through it. I overestimated myself. I tried to tell a false story of my marriage, but lies have never been my greatest skill.
“Okay!” I blurted out. “I was never in a relationship with my husband. We did it so we’d have the money to get an apartment! I can’t lie anymore. I can’t play this game.”
“You’re not a good liar,” Brown said, with a sympathetic smile.
I broke down in tears, feeling pathetic and weak. I spilled my guts about myself, my marriage, and my white-trash past. I was scared and naïve. I even answered overly personal questions, such as “Do you still believe that your marriage was legal when you never had sex with your husband?” I began telling them whatever they wanted to hear so I could escape that interrogation room.
“Girl, I’m not worried about you,” Brown said, smiling again. “Yeah, you’re in trouble. You’re in big trouble. But look at how far you’ve come.” She reminded me that I had my whole life ahead of me.
“From the path you were going, you should have been lying in a gutter somewhere, but here you are now, in the Navy and on track. You’re going to be fine.”
In a way, Darnita Brown broke me down and built me up. I can’t say that I ever hated her or NCIS. We all had a job to do.
They took my mug shot, got my fingerprints, and said that I was a criminal for embezzling $31,025.10 with my “arranged marriage.” For the next five months, I was under an extreme amount of stress. Before this, the most legal trouble I’d had was a speeding ticket. I developed migraines, and I became afraid of spending money. I hardly left my apartment. My old reality seemed like a distant memory. I felt backstabbed, unsure of who had begun this investigation. During those few months, I was constantly paranoid, jumping every time my phone rang. It seemed as if I was always being watched. I honestly felt that I had done nothing wrong. The only requirements for BAH were a valid marriage certificate and spousal support. I had all of that. I had everything.
I also had a raging resentment toward the Navy’s hypocrisy. I thought about all the cheaters I saw on my ship. I remembered two officers that had been caught having sex during a deployment. Their only punishment was transfer to another command. Both were married with children. Both were supposed to be leaders, examples for the enlisted. I even worked for a guy who raped a college girl. She had medical evidence of anal tearing, but the Navy never pursued the case, supposedly because there was no evidence of forced sex. Yet they could prove that I never loved my husband. I didn’t hurt anyone, lie to anyone, and I followed the rules. There were no requirements to feel a certain emotion for your spouse.
I wrote in my statement to NCIS, “We were two close friends who committed to a marriage that was not so much for romance but for convenience. I understand that our marriage was legal in the State of California but not appropriate for Navy standards. I did not believe that I was committing any type of fraud.”
Suzanne Lachelier is the Navy lawyer who handled my case. She has since moved to Washington D.C. In mid-January I called her to say I was finally out of the military.
“Good!” she said. “I’m glad it all worked out for you.”
She was assigned to my case after my interrogation. I was skeptical about her at first because she was a Navy lawyer. It didn’t make sense for the same system prosecuting me to be defending me, too. But I quickly liked her and felt comfortable around her. A dirty blonde, fair-skinned woman in her early 30s, she represents what I strive to be: successful with a career. She’s an intelligent woman, who searched the Navy’s rules and regulations for ways to help me escape. It turned out that not everyone in the federal government was trying to screw me over.
She had dealt with two BAH fraud cases about ten years earlier, but both marriages had fake certificates. Mine was valid. Lachelier thought no one could be punished for marrying for a particular reason.
“I never thought the Navy would get into that,” she said.
The military has never officially defined marriage. There are no written rules.
“If you had researched the Navy rules before you got married, it actually would have been more reason for you to get married for BAH,” Lachelier said. “There were no rules to break.”
She told me that my command initiated my case.
“Why do you think they were pushing so hard to prosecute me?” I asked.
“Well, you being a woman may have something to do with it, because most women are more emotional toward marriage. Also, you’re outspoken and articulate. That can be intimidating, especially in the military. But I think it was mostly for moralistic purposes. They probably felt what you did was wrong and wanted your punishment to be an example to other military members.”
The Navy will make an example of you when you mess up! I remembered officers constantly telling me that.
“They were trying to prosecute you for marrying for financial purposes, but they are the ones who are putting a price on marriage,” Lachelier said.
Lachelier got my fraud charges dropped. I walked away with reduction in rank and had to pay a fine of about $4000, plus get lectured about committing fraud. My life was not ruined. Although my superiors did not treat me as if my charges were dropped, I left the Navy with an honorable discharge at the end of my enlistment.
With the war in Iraq, military members are faced with incredible stress. I witnessed a lot of broken marriages. I decided to speak with an expert on these problems: a Navy marriage counselor. I called the Fleet and Family Service Center. A man answered the phone in a friendly voice.
“Hi. I’m writing a paper on Navy marriages, and I was wondering if I could speak to a counselor.”
“Sure!” he said enthusiastically. “I’m a marriage counselor. I could talk to you over the phone if you’d like.”
His voice was warm, and I liked how cooperative he was. He provided me with great information. He told me that when military members have family issues, it can take concentration away from doing their jobs. He added that the majority of couples with marital problems are under the age of 24. Marriages are often rushed, because the military provides financial support and because it’s more likely for spouses to be stationed close to one another.
Just as I expected, he said that the majority of marital issues come from infidelity. He also told me that couples usually get married primarily for the BAH.
Once we finished the interview, I mentioned that there was a possibility of having my paper published. I wanted to send him a copy to get his approval on everything.
His warm tone turned cold.
“You didn’t tell me this was going to be published,” he said.
Wait a second. I recognized that tone. It was the same tone I’d heard throughout my enlistment from men old enough to be my father but cold and suspicious. The message was, You’re not one of us.
“I — I don’t know if it’s getting published,” I said, shaken.
“You told me this was a school paper, not an article!”
“It is a school paper, for a journalism class.”
He wasn’t happy about that.
“What is your name, number, and email?”
I remember that too. Everywhere on base, if I broke some stupid rule I’d hear, “What’s your name, shipmate?”
The last conversation I had with my grandfather before he died ended with an officer saying, “No talking on the phone in uniform, shipmate! Hang that up! What’s your name?”
The marriage counselor didn’t want the Fleet and Family Service Center to be misrepresented, which was not my intention. He insisted that he receive a copy of my story when it was finished.
I aim to please, so here’s your copy, Uncle Sam!
But that counselor was right about a lot of things. Navy couples do rush into marriage, due to a combination of love, youth, getting orders close to each other, and BAH. Many other couples have a marriage without a relationship at all. A woman I’ll call Kristy Austin, who didn’t want her name used in order to protect her spouse, is a civilian who has been married to her friend for about a year. He is in the Navy.
“So, why did you marry him?” I asked.
“To help him out with money,” she said. “He gives me $300 a month and keeps the rest. That’s enough for me.”
“What was it like saying wedding vows to him?”
“Uhh…” Austin smiled and giggled.
“Yeah, very,” she said, still smiling.
Austin says that she doesn’t really think about being married. Her marriage is only a sheet of paper. She even has a boyfriend.
James Gerrardi (not his real name) also married for the BAH.
“You married one of your friends?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t even consider her a friend,” he said. “She was more of an acquaintance.”
Gerrardi got married when he was an E2 (seaman apprentice) and gave his wife $400 a month.
“Do you regret getting married for those reasons?”
“No way. Not for a second,” he responded without hesitation. “There is no way that any ethical or reasonable person raised in a middle-class household could be subjected to those living conditions and stay sane.”
From our first day of boot camp, we are told that we have to set an example to others because we represent our country. We have to be more responsible, loyal, and stronger than our peers. We have to pave the way for our generation. Naturally, we are expected to have a higher level of morality.
Before deployment, my friends and I would try to predict who would cheat with whom. It was one big soap opera. Marriage seemed to be simply a sheet of paper, and the rules were, What happens on deployment, stays on deployment.
When I was accused of fraud, I took another look at myself. I went through with getting married to someone I had no intimacy with in order to collect money. I knew I was raised better than that. The numerous others I knew in these marriages were raised better as well. There was a time when I was ashamed to be in the Navy. I thought that all the men were lying cheaters and all the women were sluts. I laughed at the thought of marriage and love. I was bitter with the things I had witnessed and bitter with myself. I see things clearly now. Bad people are not in the military. The military brings out the bad in them.