The Carolina Garrison of the Fighting 501st Legion of Storm Troopers lends a comforting hand (or light-sabers, in this case) to local children in need
The lanky stranger, dressed from chin to toe in nightmarish black, held out his gloved hand to a darling little girl standing quietly by his side.
“Well, hey there,” said the stranger, in a reasonable facsimile of Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi’s hearty salutation. “How are you today? It’s so nice to meet you.”
The little girl shook the stranger’s hand, cautiously if not a bit reluctantly. She must have been no more than two. With her blonde curls and sweet, angelic expression, she was as pretty as a princess – Princess Leia, to be exact, but without the trademark hair extensions.
After she had greeted this intimidating fellow, the girl’s father approached the stranger and asked if he could take his picture.
“Sure thing,” signaled the stranger, with the politeness of one who’s been asked this question several dozen times a day, a natural part of one’s convention-going routine.
In the blink of a Jawa’s eye, the stranger struck a more aggressive pose, baring his dark-stained teeth and flashing his bright-yellow eyes for the camera.
At this, the little girl retreated a few steps, into the comforting arms of her mother. Her formerly watchful gaze had turned to fright, for the stranger revealed himself as Darth Maul, one of the Sith Lords of Stars Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace fame.
“Thanks a lot,” the father acknowledged.
“My pleasure,” replied Darth Maul – or rather, ex-Army veteran Bill Lane, the man in nightmarish black behind the red-tattooed makeup, spiky horns, and yellow contacts.
Modest and unassuming, Bill is a member of the Carolina Garrison, part of the Fighting 501st Legion of Storm Troopers, one of the world’s premier fan-based Star Wars costuming clubs. He was busy manning the display table at the Cumberland County Public Library’s “Librari-Con” Mini-Convention, in the library’s headquarters on Maiden Lane in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Despite the noisy atmosphere, Bill always finds time for visitors, well-wishers, and plain, old curiosity seekers (present company included). His task is to alert people to the garrison’s main cause.
Mission and Purpose
Founded in 1997 by Albin Johnson, a resident of South Carolina, the 501st Legion boasts an international association of some 5,000 members (known as “storm troopers”), with chapters (or “garrisons”) in over 50 countries worldwide.
According to their brochure, the 501st is dedicated to spreading the magic and fun of Star Wars through authentic-looking costumes and arms. Their aim, throughout the years, is to become the “leading force in fan-based charity events” devoted to “brightening lives.” Their reward: the satisfaction of knowing they are bringing joy through their work and smiles to children’s faces.
Garrison members are not compensated for their time, nor are they reimbursed for travel or other expenses. They do what they do for the sheer pleasure of doing it.
“It’s cool to dress up,” Bill confirmed. “To see a smile on someone’s face, who’s gone through what they’ve gone through – it’s priceless, absolutely priceless!”
Bill started down the charity-event road back in 2003, when he was stationed in Alabama. It was during the Halloween season, he recalled, that his son expressed a desire to dress up as Darth Vader.
“That’s great, son,” Bill said. But then, the son asked the father to dress up along with him – as, wouldn’t you know it, Darth Vader. Bill couldn’t resist the challenge.
I’m sure he felt (as many others had, too) that this reversal of the age-old order of things – i.e., “the transmission from fathers to sons of the powers of both good and evil” – was not the usual quick-and-easy path for a Sith Lord to take.
Though no outward expression of evil (what Star Wars fans commonly refer to as the “dark side”) was ever intended, certainly the power of good (or the “Force”) was unquestionably conveyed in ways Bill had no means of measuring.
Quite unexpectedly, his spot-on personification of the dreaded Dark Lord was noticed by storm troopers from the local 501st Legion, resulting in an invitation to join their ranks. He accepted without hesitation.
Dress Up for Success
In 2007, Bill and his family relocated to Fort Bragg, where he joined the Carolina Garrison of the Fighting 501st, which serves both North and South Carolina. During one of their frequent charity appearances (“It was at the Jordan Lake Pediatric Brain Foundation,” he added), Bill was once more dressed up as Darth Vader.
While in his distinctive costume and iconic headgear, Bill casually walked up to one of the kids in attendance and noticed the child’s face light up brighter than Luke Skywalker’s light-saber.
This was no Jedi mind trick, he reckoned, but the real deal.
“That did it. That’s when I knew this is what I wanted to do.” But playing “dress up” with Star Wars figures isn’t all fun and games.
“I got up at 3 a.m. this morning to put on the makeup and costume,” Bill explained. “I started the night before by shaving my head, which my wife didn’t take too kindly to. The next thing I did was glue on the horns. Then I placed a stencil on my face and had my daughter spray on the black paint. The whole process took about six hours. Once the makeup’s on I can sweat and do whatever I want in it, and it won’t come off.”
He estimates the cost of impersonating Darth Maul (including makeup, boots, and double-edged light-saber) at around $800. His Darth Vader outfit, which is modeled on the same one the character wore in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, tops out at an astronomical $3,000.
While most garrison members relish playing the “bad guys” – from Sith Lords, Imperial guards, and Galactic storm troopers, to bounty hunters Boba and Jango Fett – a fair number of “good guys” are given equal billing, most notably the aforementioned Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker, along with an incredibly accurate Chewbacca.
Played by six-foot, four-inch trooper Ryan Ricks, Chewie’s individually hand-stitched costume and furry feet add about a foot to his already imposing frame, right up to the “regulation” Wookiee height of seven-feet, five-inches tall.
Katie’s Story: A Personal Connection
No doubt Chewbacca and his Star Wars cohorts command plenty of attention wherever they go. But there are also serious undertones to all the hoopla, most of which came about through the troopers’ personal connection to a family member’s terminal illness.
Katie Johnson, the six-year-old daughter of the 501st Legion’s founder, Albin Johnson, was diagnosed about a decade ago with an inoperable brain tumor. Katie fought long and hard to overcome this implacable foe, but eventually lost her battle with cancer in the summer of 2005.
With the help of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, she was able to make one last trip to her favorite vacation spot, Walt Disney World in Orlando. From that life-altering experience, the Carolina Garrison has continued to support Make-a-Wish in Katie’s honor, so that, according to their flyer, “other children like her might have an easier time [of it].”
“It’s all about easing their pain,” Bill noted.
In addition to Make-a-Wish, the 501st participates in all sorts of charity benefits, including parades, children’s hospital visits, conventions, library visits, and concerts, with appearances at company functions and movie premieres thrown in for good measure.
They make regular excursions to Duke Children’s Hospital, in Durham, and Breast Cancer “Walk for Life” rallies, as well as the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and Toys-4-Tots toy drives, among other charitable activities.
Beating the Odds
Unfortunately, the odds of beating pediatric brain cancer depend entirely upon the type and location of the tumor. But there are a few success stories.
Bill told one such story: of a survivor whose parents bought raffle tickets for a FireAntz hockey team jersey. “They must’ve spent $20 worth of tickets,” he continued, “out of a total of 600 or so tickets sold that day.”
As luck would have it, the survivor won the raffle and made off with the FireAntz jersey.
“What are the odds of that happening?” Bill asked. I’d say about 3,720 to 1, but then I never successfully navigated an asteroid field, let alone won a jersey in a raffle.
Bill recounted another incident – a more moving one, to be sure – of his emotional encounter with a terminally ill patient. “She hardly had any hair left and her eyes were almost lifeless.”
However, the outcome was far different from the one with the curly-headed tyke described above. “As soon as she saw me in costume, she extended an arm to me. I shook her tiny hand – two fingers, really. Tears came to my eyes… I felt joy.”
This goes to show that underneath the red-and-black makeup and spiky horns, even a Sith Lord, one as fearsomely determined as that of a former Army veteran, can have a heart of gold.
“She’s the real trooper,” Bill said in conclusion, “not me.”
He may have joined the metaphorical dark side, but the Force remains strong with this one, and with the Fighting 501st.
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes