The crisp green military uniform made George Liu feel patriotic and proud, and when he marched through the streets of the San Gabriel Valley with the United States Army Volunteer Reserve Association, the green card holder felt like a real citizen.
Liu bought the uniform from a thrift store for $100 and then paid an additional $95 to become a sergeant in the association, a bargain compared with what the group’s web site said it cost to become a colonel or–at the top of the price line–the $335 it cost to be a lieutenant general.
For years, Liu and hundreds of others from heavily Asian neighborhoods in the San Gabriel Valley have joined faux military units, dressing in uniform, marching in parades, rubbing shoulders with politicians and, in at least one instance, traveling abroad as a dignitary.
“I want to do something good for America. I can’t just pick up a broom and sweep the streets,” said Liu, taking a quick break from the lunchtime rush at the Chinese restaurant where he works as a cook. “I need a group like this. It makes me feel American.”
But the reserve association received unwanted attention this spring when a onetime member was arrested for masquerading as a U.S. military reservist and preying on immigrants by promising that joining his break-away group would give them an inroad to U.S. citizenship.
Yupeng Deng’s group, which he named U.S. Army/Military Special Forces Reserves, did business out of a Temple City strip mall in what looked much like a U.S. Army recruiting office.
There, authorities said, he issued credentials that resembled U.S. military papers and told some recruits that the paperwork could get them out traffic tickets or entitle them to military benefits. He asked recruits to refer to him as “Supreme Commander.”
So hazy were the lines between the real military and Deng’s group that some members even showed up at U.S. recruiting offices to pay their dues, authorities said.
As the association grew, some members broke away to form splinter groups. In 2008, Deng split away, setting up in his Temple City storefront and drawing about 100 recruits.
Peng Gao, an Arcadia lawyer who helped Deng incorporate, was so impressed that he joined him.
The group held training sessions on weekends, marching at a local park with wooden guns.
Deng was arrested in April and charged with 13 counts of theft by pretense, manufacturing deceptive government documents and counterfeiting a government seal. In a deal with prosecutors in late June, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison.
But with the rash of bad publicity, San Gabriel Valley politicians who once welcomed the pageantry of having uniformed troops march through their banquets or stand at attention as the national anthem was played distanced themselves. Events were canceled. Association members stopped wearing their uniforms and met more infrequently.
They say their commander is now under pressure to disband the group or at least redesign the uniforms to look more like business attire than military dress.