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Who says the most feared villains in the cosmos can't have a softer side? Donning the unmistakable attire of iconic Stormtroopers, TIE Fighter pilots, Imperial Guards, and even Lord Vader himself, The 501st Legion may look fierce, but this group of die-hard Star Wars enthusiasts is thankfully far more concerned with helping the galaxy than crushing it.
In honor of the official Star Wars Day holiday -- May The Fourth -- here's a closer look at the growing movement of Star Wars super fans who do awesome things for others while making an epic fashion statement in the process. Meet the 501st Legion, aka "Vader's Fist."
What first started out back in 1997 as a small Geocities Star Wars fan site for posting DIY Stormtrooper armor photos has grown into something far bigger. In the years since its creation, 501st founder Albin Johnson's group has become a beacon for serious Star Wars aficionados who share a love of costuming, community and charity work.
With over 9,000 members worldwide and regional "garrisons" found in every state in the U.S., The 501st Legion prefers to use its sizeable force for good -- ironically, by dressing up as favorite characters from the dark side of The Force and volunteering at events and charity fundraisers.
Being surrounded by fellow Star Wars fans and talking shop about the popular sci-fi franchise is one of the perks being a member, but the charity aspect is a big draw for many who join the cause.
"The most rewarding thing is going to events and seeing the faces of children, and even adults, light up because they finally get to meet Darth Vader," says Kevin Martinez, who joined the group last year. "The 501st is a great community. We're all Star Wars fans and the opportunity to do great work always raises everyone's spirits. We rally together for causes, such as the Force for Change promotion going on now, and it's a great feeling to help give back to the community."
It can take a lot of time, energy, and dedication to build your own custom Star Wars costume. Members enjoy the challenge and satisfaction of crafting their own killer armor, blasters and Imperial threads, though the sense of community and the positive work the group does for others in need makes it all the more worthwhile.
"Knowing that you are doing something you love and causing an impact, whether it be raising funds for a charity or putting a smile on a child's face, especially if we are in a children's hospital, is something that makes us feel we are part of something bigger than we are," says Jeff Nichols, Garrison Commanding Officer of the 501st Northeast Remnant based in New Jersey.
Authenticity and an eye for the little things is an important part of the costume craft that's integral to the 501st. It's the many subtle nuances -- like scratches and battle damage worked into the armor or meticulously constructed blasters that look like they were pulled straight from the Star Wars set -- that add to the excitement of seeing the 501st in action.
Long-time member Michael Bender just celebrated his 10 year anniversary with the 501st, and he's seen a lot of impressive outfits over the years. "I was drawn in by the incredible attention to details that legionnaires put into their gear," he says. "We take pride in looking like we walked off of the screen. Over the years I have had the pleasure to work with some amazingly talented people who can sculpt and create something from limited resources."
Creating elaborate costumes is a big part of the fun. There's a lot of room for interpretation and tinkering to suit your interest in characters and your personal level of time, dedication, and involvement, Martinez explains. Some members are able to build a full suit of Stormtrooper armor in a single weekend, while others start with a simpler costume that requires less construction before working up to more elaborate characters. Whatever the case, there's a wealth of tutorials and tips available to help members learn to craft their own costumes and decide on the best approach that suits them.
What makes the 501st so special, aside from its unwavering dedication to the iconic film franchise that spawned it, is the way the costuming and charity elements come together under the Imperial banner.
"Originally, the costumes drew me into joining the 501st," Nichols admits. " Being able to be in a real Stormtrooper costume looked really cool, and being part of a group doing it was awesome. Since joining, seeing the smiles on kids faces and the excitement in their eyes is what I enjoy most about being in the Legion."
Looking to connect with the 501st and find a local garrison to get involved with? Head over to www.501st.com and you'll find tons of information, contact details, and great snapshots of the Legion in the field!
May the Fourth Be With You!