On the outside I have a really cool Stormtrooper costume. It is 100% screen accurate down to the method used to bolt it together. I also have a really cool Biker Scout that is also screen accurate and I am working on an even cooler Old Republic Havoc Trooper. To be honest, by the time I’m too old to walk, I will probably own a lot of awesome Star Wars costumes.
On the outside it looks like I am a huge Star Wars fan and it’s true, I am. I love Star Wars. I have done so since I was a child. I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s and Star Wars played a major part in my life. It still does. I was raised in a poorer area of England and money wasn’t abundant, but on the playground, even if you had a Darth Vader with no cape or lightsaber, you were accepted. Star Wars was the one big equalizer. It was one of the few places I could go as a child where I was an equal. God knows there weren’t many for me. I was bullied mercilessly as a kid and Star Wars was the one place I could go to escape. It wasn’t just a film franchise, it was a sanctuary. It wowed me with stories of heroes and villains. It showed me weapons, vehicles and technology I could only dream about. It showed me that good can triumph evil and that the underdog can emerge the victor. Most of all it taught me to never give up on my dreams.
As I got older, my love for the franchise never faded. My collecting slowed down, but not through disinterest, I just ran out of room in my office. I was first in line for the special editions and did midnight viewings of the prequel trilogy. I did backflips when Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced more movies were coming.
Last year, I took my love of the franchise to new levels. I finally joined the 501st. If you’re not aware, the 501st Legion is the premiere Star Wars Imperial costuming group. Members make their own hand made screen accurate costumes and go out to events so people can take photographs. At least, that was what I thought they did. When I joined the 501st, I did so because I wanted to immerse myself in Star Wars and make people smile. I wanted to make and wear high end screen accurate costumes and go to events and share my love of Star Wars. What I found was so much more.
I am a proud member of the Dune Sea Garrison, the Arizona chapter of the 501st Legion. I’ve only been active for just over a year and I’ve racked up almost 100 hours of service. We do get to do really cool things like escort the Phoenix Suns on the basketball court or do press events for Lucasfilm and local businesses. Yeah, it’s fun and all, but there is something else I discovered that comes from wearing the armor. Something far greater than I could ever have hoped. Humanity.
Donning your armor and going out in public is called trooping. My first troop was Free Comic Book Day 2014 at a friend’s comic book store. It was a fun experience seeing myself in the wide eyed expressions of little kids. I can only imagine how excited I would have been seeing a real life Stormtrooper when I was five. I trooped for four and a half hours and was exhausted at the end of it. It was a fun debut. The next troop changed my life.
My second troop was a few days later at the Phoenix Children’s Hospital for a five year old boy who had been admitted two days before his birthday. He was a huge Star Wars fan and we were there to help celebrate his birthday. As we were getting suited up, a nurse came in and said he had been diagnosed with an extremely aggressive mutated form of leukemia and this would be his last birthday. He didn’t speak English, but you could see the joy in his face. When we walked in the room, I realized that we weren’t just there to make his day a little better; we were there to show his parents that strangers do care. That they weren’t alone. We were there to distract them, however briefly, from the horrors of real life. We were there to make sure their son smiled one more time and that his last birthday wasn’t about the IV’s and machines he was hooked up or the vile illness destroying his innocent body. Before we left, we stopped by numerous other rooms during the visit and each stop was the same story in a different world. A parent with a sick or dying child. This isn’t the natural order of things. Parents are not supposed to bury their children. Many patients were too young to know who we were where, but the smile on the parent’s face took them out of their brutal reality for just a few moments. On my drive home, I cried. I cried heavily. The little boy was the same age as my daughter. I heard that he passed a few months later. I can’t even fathom the pain his parents have gone through. Every day I get with my daughter, his parents only got a second with their son. I went home and hugged my daughter, thankful for what I had.
My heart has broken every time I have gone to Phoenix Children’s Hospital or Banner Hospital. These troops are not easy. They don’t get easier. I’ve cried after every one I’ve done. Every room you go in holds a family suffering. Sure, the alternative is to not go. It would be easier and less painful. Being a member of the 501st isn’t just me going out in a cool costume and making people smile. It’s giving a piece of me to make someone’s life just a little better for a few brief moments.
As I’ve discussed before, the last quarter of 2014 sucked. It was a one, two, three punch of my emergency surgery in September, my former writing partner sabotaging and killing a long term project I was significantly emotionally and financially invested in just before Thanksgiving and then the car accident in early December. I missed numerous troops due to my inability to wear the armor. I tried to troop in January and suffered major back pain for a few days afterwards. I was missing trooping with the garrison and depression was rearing its ugly head again.
I wanted to troop and decided prior to Celebration VII to start working on getting a Biker Scout costume. It was an easier costume to wear and had more cloth elements than armor. I debuted it at the event. It was first the time I had been comfortable in a costume in almost six months. I was finally back into trooping again.
When I was at Celebration VII, I was in my Biker Scout costume most of the event and on the Sunday I posed to take a picture at the Endor display for my Facebook page. Seconds later, there was a line of 70 people all waiting to take their picture with me. The line didn’t let up and so for the next 90- minutes I posed for pictures and fell in love with trooping all over again. I didn’t walk away until every child and adult that wanted to meet me got their picture. For most trooping events, I ask one simple question. WWYCW – What would younger Craig want? If I was five years old again, what would I want a Stormtrooper or Biker Scout to say or do for me? How upset would I be if they walked away prior to me meeting them? I will never walk away from a child at an event. Ever.
There is a lot of responsibility that comes with wearing the armor. You’re not just a person in a cool costume. You’re an ambassador for Star Wars and Lucasfilm. You are a living breathing hero to children. You are a symbol of hope and escape to parents. The reactions I get from adults and children alike when they see my armor for the first time is wonderful. Everyone becomes a kid again. It never fails.
Trooping isn’t just about making people smile. Granted, it’s a huge part of the honor, but there is so much more to it. It’s also about escape. At my last troop, I saw a six month old child with terminal cancer. When you’re confronted with a child so young with a life expectancy of a few months, you have to question how the universe works. I can’t cure the child. What I can do is help the parents smile and show them they are not alone. That for a brief second, the parent is taken back to their childhood and away from the horrors they currently face.
I’ve just completed my fifth troop in six days. In the past week I have helped a comic store open its doors at a new location, made a five year old special needs boy’s birthday one he’ll remember, gave photo ops to kids shopping at Toys R Us, helped two Lucasfilm authors launch an amazing new book where we helped show a four year old little girl an entire universe she didn’t know about and visited children at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. This is why I love Star Wars.
Later this year I get to take my little girl to see Episode VII and a whole new generation begins. I am proud and honored to be an ambassador for Star Wars. It has played a major part in my life and will likely do so until I die. Trooping and sharing my love of Star Wars is my way of thanking the galaxy far, far away for all the joy and happiness it has brought me. Here’s to many more years.
On the outside I am a Star Wars fan. On the inside I have been able to share my passion and my heart has been warmed with the universal love the franchise has generated from so many people. George Lucas didn’t just create a film franchise. He created a universe where people could put their differences aside and come together as one unifying force.
This is TK31709 (now also TB31709) stepping back into the world of Star Wars and once again and very proudly reporting for duty.
(Forgive the fragmented nature of this post. It is unedited and my thoughts in their unaltered and unfiltered form. I didn’t want to overthink this)