In A Nutshell
For some migrants to the United States, joining the military seems like a reliable fast track to American citizenship. The Chinese immigrants who joined the “U.S. Army/Military Special Forces Reserve unit” certainly thought so. They were issued with identification papers and uniforms and took part in public parades. There was just one problem: The entire unit was an elaborate hoax.
The Whole Bushel
For many immigrants, joining the military of the host nation can be an attractive option. Volunteering to serve their new country can bring respect and prestige, as well as speeding up the process of acquiring citizenship. To some Chinese immigrants in California, joining the “U.S. Army/Military Special Forces Reserve unit” (MSFR) looked like a smart move. It boosted their chances of getting a US passport and provided an array of benefits and discounts.
The MSFR was led by David Deng, who gave himself the grand title of “Supreme Commander.” To join up, new recruits had to pay between $300 and $450, plus an annual renewal fee of $120. Further cash donations would allow unit members to be swiftly promoted up through the ranks and improve their prospects of getting American citizenship. Members of the MSFR would even be exempt from traffic tickets if they produced their military identification when stopped by police.
“Supreme Commander” Deng’s army eventually grew to over 100 soldiers. Deng ran a recruitment office where Chinese immigrants signed up, believing themselves to now be genuine US Army soldiers. Each one was presented with an ID card, identification papers, and a uniform. The MSFR’s profile grew among the Chinese community in California, and they became a fixture at local parades, marching in their authentic-looking green uniforms and carrying their detachment flags. The unit was taken on a tour of San Diego’s USS Midway museum and was even photographed with public representatives and area dignitaries.
But the “U.S. Army/Military Special Forces Reserve unit” was a fiction created by Deng. The real US Army had no such organization. After several years of living a lie, Deng’s luck ran out. The unit came to the attention of the authorities when several MSFR members tried to use their ID cards to get out of traffic tickets after being stopped for violations. Local police became suspicious when the IDs turned out to be fake and the FBI began looking at the group a little more carefully. Further red flags were raised when some unit members attempted to pay their MSFR fees at genuine Army recruitment centers.
On closer investigation, Deng’s “recruitment center” turned out to be an elaborate charade—an office made up to look authentic with US Army insignia. The ID cards and papers were fraudulent, containing misspellings and mistakes that highlighted their bogus nature. On closer inspection, the MSFR uniforms were ill-fitting and their boots lacked the shine associated with a disciplined military unit (it later emerged that Deng had purchased the supplies from army surplus stores).
Deng was finally arrested in 2011 and charged with manufacturing deceptive government documents, counterfeit of an official government seal, and 13 counts of theft by false pretenses. After arguing that the MSFR was actually a group for people who wanted to train to join the military and that it was there to help Chinese immigrants acclimatize to American society, David Deng eventually pleaded guilty to the charges. His tour of duty as Supreme Commander of an imaginary unit was finally over.