Krystina Perry wasn't looking for love. The self-proclaimed Army brat signed up for an account with MilitaryLoveLinks.com in 2007, she said, so she could find a pen pal. When she signed into her account on Oct. 8 of that year, she noticed none of her friends were online so she sent a message to an Army private named Mark.
"We just started talking, and we talked all the way until he had to go to PT in the morning," said Krystina, now 23. "That same day, he was like, ‘I think I love you,' and I was like, ‘I love you, too.' From there, it just kind of took off."
Two months later, they met in person. Three weeks after that, they were married.
The Perrys are not alone. Their story reflects the growing trend of myriad couples who find lasting love through the Internet. More than 120,000 marriages a year occur as a result of matches made through dating Web sites, according to Online Dating magazine. And as of last year, more than 16 million Americans had signed up for an online dating service, according to the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Of those, 17 percent say they have found lasting love.
The number of social media users stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan has skyrocketed, due in part to the ubiquity of Web access. And although Yahoo Personals and Match.com still top the list of the most visited dating sites, military-specific sites have experienced an increase in traffic.
"We have a couple of hundred thousand users," says Steve Kasper, vice president of marketing for MilitaryFriends.com, which started seven years ago. Niche dating sites have higher success rates, he says, because the field is narrowed to the most compatible matches.
Plenty of advantages
Dr. James Houran, a psychologist and dating expert who's appeared on NBC's "Today" show and The Discovery Channel, said meeting people over the Internet has many advantages over offline dating.
"It allows people to work at their pace with the relationship," Houran said. "The same pressures that we are all familiar with when you're doing face-to-face contact are minimized to a certain extent."
Time is the biggest advantage. Online dating works for those with chaotic schedules because it can be done anytime from anywhere, Houran said.
Online dating also affords love-seekers a wealth of potential matches, regardless of location. In the Pew study, more than half of those polled said it was difficult to meet people in the community in which they live.
If finding love has previously been like finding a needle in a haystack, the Internet is like a giant haystack with millions of needles.
It also can be economical most sites offer free or low-rate (about $9.99 to $29.99 monthly) memberships.
Another benefit is the buffer of the Internet. Houran said relationships that develop online tend to be more honest because of the anonymity the Internet provides.
Houran said you should remain active on the site and visit frequently. "It shows you're committed, you're interested and that you're not just a lurker," he said. "When you're more active, your profile tends to get preferential treatment when other people are doing searches. You'll be higher in the search ranking list the more active you are."
A healthy start
Military dating sites cut right to the chase: Those who visit looking for love must understand what the military lifestyle entails (deployments, frequent moves).
"When people go through the trouble, the energy and the effort of putting together a profile on a niche site, they've done some research," Houran said. "If you're looking for someone in the military who understands that life ... a military dating site is an excellent way to cut through a lot of red tape and find someone who knows what they want and will explore a relationship with the right person." Houran said relationships that develop online through niche sites can be healthier than ones offline.
"Niche sites are more successful because they cater to like-minded singles," says Arielle Wolin, spokeswoman for MilitarySinglesConnection.com. "When you go to a [military] site, you already have something in common."
Rae Richards and Marine Lance Cpl. Jeffery Alejandro Coleman met through MilitarySinglesConnection.com, which launched in 2003. Two months after connecting in cyberspace, the two met in person. They were married in June.
Rae said she struggled with the stigma attached to meeting someone online but has gotten over it, in part because it's so common these days.
"I just told people that I met him through a friend," Richards said. After a while, though, she told family and friends the truth.
Krystina and Mark Perry were open about how they met from the beginning. "I think [ours] is just a really cool love story," Krystina said.
"When a lot of these sites started, there was a stigma," Kasper said. "But now it's become the No. 1 way people meet; it has surpassed meeting at bars and going to church.
"It's become a big business, obviously, but it's also become a way of life. People have gotten used to using the Internet these days. A lot of that stigma that existed 10 years ago has faded away, and it's become a more legitimate and respectable way of meeting."
Know the risks
Still, cultivating a romance from half a world away in a combat zone can be dicey.
Some military dating sites can verify the identity of their users for added security, but users should still be cautious.
"Women are on [dating sites] because they're looking for a partner," Wendy McKay said. "They're looking for a relationship."
In 2007, a con artist claiming to be Marine Col. Richard Bartch nearly persuaded McKay, a 52-year-old British woman, to forward him $5,000 to help him return from Iraq after fabricating an elaborate story. When details of his story didn't add up, McKay alerted authorities.
"I'm very, very wary," she said.
Online identity theft is on the rise, said Marsali Hancock, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Internet Keep Safe Coalition. To reduce risk, she discourages posting names below photos and recommends using privacy settings.
"The Internet is forever," Hancock said. "Whatever you post, you can never fully remove. Once you put your picture up, it's up there and you lose control over it."
The sites themselves are becoming more creative. DateAHero.com offers a "virtual date" in which the couple can meet in an online coffee shop or on a virtual beach to get to know each other. The site will also call to verify that users (service members can sign up for free) are who they say they are.
While no dating site, military or otherwise, can guarantee a perfect match, your dating pool will increase substantially and your chances of finding the right match can only go up.
Staff and wire reports contributed to this story.
Dos and don'ts of online dating
Do post recent pictures that show what you really look like.
Don't put your life story in your profile. Think of your profile as a r้sum้ keep it short, interesting and to the point.
Do pick a username that describes your personality. Sexylady410 is a bit clich้.
Don't publicly post or share any detailed contact information, such as your address or telephone number.
Do be active on the Web site. The more active you are, the higher your profile will appear in the search queue.
Don't lie. If you plan to meet a person, it makes no sense to lie about how much hair you have.
Do be honest about what you're looking for.
Don't meet just anyone. Use your gut instincts. If something feels a little "off," trust that feeling.
Do meet potential matches in a public place the first time. No matter how well you think you know someone, you should always take your safety into account.
Don't be discouraged if you don't meet your soul mate right away. Be patient.
MilitaryLoveLinks.com has free basic memberships available that allow you to create a profile, upload pictures and send messages to other users. In the chat room, you can view webcams and audio chat and send private messages. For $24.99 a month, gold and platinum members can communicate with all members via e-mail.
MilitaryFriends.com offers free guest memberships and gold memberships. Gold members can access 21 more communication features than guests for prices that start at $29.95 for one month. The site is unique because it will verify personal information to make sure member profiles are accurate.
MilitarySinglesConnection.com also offers free memberships. Users can upgrade to standard or premium for $9.99 a month for six months or $26.99 monthly. Standard membership allows you to send and receive messages, access message boards and send e-cards. Premium members may access the Spotlight and Stand Out features for more exposure.