It was a chance visit in a hospital that turned Tanya Kathleen to the Dark Side.
“What got me into the whole 501st was I was really sick, had surgery in the hospital, and I was rolling around in a wheelchair and I saw all these stormtroopers and (Darth) Vader walking down the hospital halls,” she recalled. “I was wondering what’s going on? I asked one of their handlers and they said they’re here visiting the sick kids at the hospital.”
Intrigued, Kathleen wanted to know more.
“I was like, ‘who are they, what are they?’ They explained to me what the 501st was and that they do charity work along with the Rebel Legion and the Mandalorian Mercs, and I was like, ‘Wow! I want to do that.’ When you see the look on those kids’ faces when a stormtrooper walks into the room, it’s amazing. I wanted to be a part of that,” she said.
Now Kathleen is one of the white armored Star Wars characters making hospital visits and doing other charity work. The 501st Legion is an international Star Wars costuming organization depicting the bad guys, mostly stormtroopers. Working under the motto “Bad guys doing good,” the costumed volunteers do a lot of charity work. Locally, their primary charitable organization is the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“The Star Garrison is the Texas branch of the 501st and then my squad is the South Texas Squad,” she said.
Kathleen and the rest of her squad spent Memorial Day weekend at Houston’s Comicpalooza where they collected donations for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They also supported Star Wars actor Peter Mayhew, who plays Chewbacca, whose foundation launched a fundraising effort to help children in need in Venezuela (coin.petermayhewfoundation.org).
When Kathleen started out two years ago, she had designed a simple costume for the Expanded Universe (books) character Mara Jade.
“She was easiest and I just went from that to stormtrooper and then shadow trooper, TIE pilots, Imperial officer and then I got with the Mandalorian Mercs and the Rebel Legion and did Jedi,” she said.
The Mandalorian Mercs are those who dress up in variations of the Boba Fett costume and the Rebel Legion members dress as Jedis and other Light Side characters. Also joining them are the Houston Area Droid Builders who make Star Wars robots.
When dressed as a stormtrooper, Kathleen stands out from the crowd.
“If I’m a stormtrooper, the first thing is, ‘aren’t you a little short to be a stormtrooper?’ That’s the number one thing. I’m five-foot tall. I’m a five-foot tall stormtrooper, so that gets them,” she said.
After that, they notice another physical difference.
“Then the prosthetic leg, and the kids just think it’s amazing, especially the ones that are disabled, that are different. They immediately just gravitate towards me,” she said. “They’re like, ‘oh wow, if she can do it we can do it.’ I really like that. I feel like I can help the kids know that with any disability you have you can still have fun and make others feel good about themselves.”
Kathleen is missing her right leg below the knee.
“I was in a car accident about 20 years ago,” she explained. “An 18-wheeler pulled out in front of me and my car went under it and then he rolled over my car and my foot got crushed under the steering column and the gas pedal. And after 10 years and 12 surgeries to try and save my foot there was finally nothing else they could do so they had to amputate below the knee. But I’ve got a robot foot and I’ll paint it white to match my stormtrooper outfit, so I make the most of it and incorporate it into my costumes.”
Being disabled has given her a special place in the 501st.
“What’s so funny, when I went to (Star Wars) Celebration last year, which was the big celebration in Florida, and all these people had recognized me from Facebook when I was building my armor and I was trying to figure out a way to incorporate my leg into my armor,” she said. “When I saw them at the convention I probably had a hundred people come up to me and go ‘you’re Cybergirl, you’re Cybergirl,’ because they saw the leg and they immediately knew me and I had no idea who these people were, but it was such an amazing feeling to have all this family in the 501st come up and say what an inspiration I was to just go out there and do it. So it was great, I love that!”
The connections didn’t stop there.
“At the Celebration, it was really cool because the founder (of the 501st), Albin Johnson, he’s an amputee, and so him and I got to know each other because he was helping me build my armor and trying to get ideas how to incorporate my cyber leg into it, and so when we saw each other at Celebration it was awesome to meet him.
“He actually came up with a detachment, the Walking Wounded Detachment, and it’s for troopers with disabilities and it could be for anything from blindness to amputation to MS, anything like that. And it’s a detachment for us with disabilities. I thought it was really great to meet the founder who is also an amputee and he was just as excited to meet me as I was to meet him,” she said.
A lot of Kathleen’s work with the 501st has been in hospitals visiting sick children.
“We’ve done funerals, we’ve done weddings, recently we had a girl who had cancer and we went through all of her remission and after she was cancer-free we did troops for her, we surprised her,” she said.
The stormtroopers are often seen at conventions such as Comicpalooza.
“Conventions are a big get-together and we also raise money for Make-A-Wish Foundation while we’re at the conventions,” Kathleen said. “It’s all donations and we never get paid for any of our time or any of our events. It’s all volunteer; we build our own costumes.”
The costumes are not cheap. A Jedi outfit can cost hundreds of dollars and the armored troopers, Mandalorians and the like run easily into the thousands. Before volunteers can appear as part of the 501st, members must meet very strict costuming guidelines.
“You buy the kits from the armor makers and basically they’re just molds and you have to trim them and sand them and cut them and glue them; measure some more, glue some more, cut some more, start all over and keep doing it until you get it right,” she said. “It could take months to build your armor. A lot of the cloth costumes, like the Jedi and all of those, people will sew their own. We have pretty strict standards we have to follow to make sure they’re screen accurate.”
Kathleen didn’t stop with costumes when it came to being a stormtrooper. Her 2017 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara is equally decked out.
“The Jeep became an extension of my stormtrooper. When I went shopping for a Jeep I knew it was going to be the stormtrooper Jeep, so I picked out the white one with the black back and had everything else customized,” she said. “I wanted it to look mean like a stormtrooper, so I had the hood custom painted with stormtrooper colors, I had the front grille custom painted to look like the front of the helmets. The bumper, the wench, I’ve got a stormtrooper shifter knob, stormtrooper decals and of course 501st decals everywhere. The white wheels … I really wanted to stormtrooper it out.”
Kathleen lives in Sugar Land and is employed as a marketing coordinator for Sugar Land Veterinary Specialists. At 43 years of age she is having fun and has the full support of her family and friends.
“My mother, bless her heart, she loves it and she’s like ‘are you going to go play Star Wars?’ My co-workers, there are actually three of my co-workers here (at Comicpalooza) that cosplay also. They think it’s great. They think it’s great what we do for the kids, it’s all volunteer, so yeah, everyone’s pretty much supportive of it,” she said.
Kathleen plans to keep going as long as she can.
“I’m still dressing up at 43 and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon, at all,” she said.
She is not alone, either. Fort Bend County is home to several Star Wars costumers. Damian Hebert of Rosenberg has been playing a stormtrooper for about two years now.
“I’m 52 years old and 14 at the heart – at the oldest. Usually it’s 10,” he said.
He makes his living as a skateboard distributor; so youthful endeavors are a natural part of his life.
“Stormtroopers cannot sit down. You can lean; we’re good at leaning,” he observed.
Other 501st members from Fort Bend County include Zachary Herbert of Rosenberg, Jason Haddock of Missouri City, Javan Foerster of Sugar Land, Jeff Hebert of Richmond, Karl Gehring of Sugar Land, and Jason Hardin of Richmond.