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September 04, 2019 News » Cover Story

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Support the Troopers

Don't be fooled by the armor—the 501st Legion are the good guys.
By Scott Renshaw

KIARA MCDEVITT
  • Kiara McDevitt

For anyone who has grown up with more than 40 years of Star Wars, the white armor of Imperial Stormtroopers has been a symbol of enforcing villainy (and also maybe the need for more marksmanship training). But for nearly half of that time, one group of Star Wars fans has attempted to claim that image as a symbol of kindness and charity—or, as Erika McKinney, public relations officer for the Utah-based Alpine Garrison of the 501st Legion puts it, "bad guys doing good."

The 501st Legion traces its national origins back to 1997, when a South Carolina-based Star Wars enthusiast named Albin Johnson and a bunch of his friends started cosplaying in homemade stormtrooper armor, first going under the name of Vader's Fist. According to McKinney, the group started showing up at movies together, and Johnson launched a website which became a home for photos of other homemade stormtrooper costumes around the country. Membership swelled to the point that 200 members of the 501st marched in the 2007 Tournament of Roses Parade, in which George Lucas was the Grand Marshall.

McKinney herself has been a member of Utah's Alpine Garrison (ut501st.com)—now in its 16th year, one of the many national and international chapters of the 501st—since 2014, but traces her Star Wars fandom back much further than that. "I've been a huge Star Wars fan my entire life," she says. "When Star Wars came out in '77, my dad took us five times in a row. My husband and I, our first date was Episode I."

While the group started specifically focused on the classic white stormtrooper armor, the 501st has come to encompass cosplay as a wide variety of characters generally associated with the villain side of the Star Wars universe—officers, Imperial Guards, Sith Lords and more. McKinney notes that her own characters include Asajj Ventress, from the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series, and that there can be a variety of reasons for choosing a specific costume or character for a specific occasion. "Some costumes are very comfortable," she says. "Some, you don't want to walk in a parade in. Some stormtroopers can't sit down. Does a mask bother you? If so, you might want to choose something that has makeup and a hood." There are even practical considerations where some costumes have peripheral vision concerns, making it necessary for an out-of-costume "handler" to assist the costumed character with stairs and other potential obstacles.

What is consistent for the group, however, is a focus on public service, including working with groups like Make-A-Wish Foundation, Ronald McDonald House and Primary Children's Hospital. According to McKinney, depending on the time of year, the Alpine Garrison might participate in an event every week. And that's leaving aside special occasions like "May the 4th Be With You" day, when there could be more than a dozen events. "Some people call it 'The Gauntlet,' trying to do all of them," McKinney says.

It might seem counter-intuitive to have a now-iconic representation of power-hungry evil out doing charity events for children, but McKinney sees nothing strange about it. "I grew up always wanting to be a bad guy," she says. "I can't tell you how many times, when we've gone to a hospital, a child will walk right up to a stormtrooper and give them a hug. Everybody loves a stormtrooper. Everybody loves Darth Vader. There's no fear. Maybe our scariest characters aren't actually that scary."

McKinney is aware that some people think there might be a financial obstacle to getting involved in a group of this kind, if you're not someone with the funds or know-how to create your own costume. But she encourages people not to worry whether there's a way for them to participate. "A good way to get started is as handlers, or cadets, with no costume," she says. "Come and help someone in a costume, and you'll meet people and make friends. ... If they don't know how to build [costumes], we're here, we know how to help you. We have armor parties."

As for the events themselves, they're often more than opportunities to dress up. "Sometimes we can get really busy with life, and have the worst days," McKinney says. "You go to a troop event, and just forget about everything. Your heart gets so full."

Perhaps you can't judge a hero by their armor.

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