By Joe Southern
The release of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” this Friday has millions of people excited, but few as excited as those who live, eat and breathe all things from a galaxy far, far away.
Members of the 501st Legion – an international Star Wars costuming group – will be out in force and in costume at theaters everywhere, including Fort Bend County, where several Stormtroopers and other characters call home.
A group of them recently gathered at the Santikos Palladium in Richmond to talk with the Fort Bend Star about their hobby and their obsession with Star Wars.
“The bottom line is we’re a bunch of big Star Wars geeks,” said Damian Hebert, 50, of Rosenberg.
Hebert and his son, Zachary, are members of the South Texas Squadron of Star Garrison. The garrison is a branch of the 501st serving Texas and Oklahoma. Damian portrays a Stormtrooper and Zachary, 23, helps as a handler.
Haddock portrays a Biker Scout from “Return of the Jedi.”
Members of the 501st Legion are typically the white-armored Stormtroopers, though there are variations, including Imperial officers, Darth Vaders, Boba Fetts and others typically considered villains in the movies. It’s not just limited to the movies, either. Several portray characters from other media – primarily books – in what is commonly called the Expanded Universe.
“Bad guys doing good, that’s our motto,” said Javan Foerster, 39, of Sugar Land, who plays a Shadow Stormtrooper (black armor).
“The people at conventions, they know who I am,” Jeff said.
What most people do not realize is that Jeff can’t see where he is going, whether behind the mask or not. He is blind.
“I only recently lost my remaining vision,” he said.
The 501st prides itself on being inclusive and has several members with different handicaps.
“We have members who are paraplegics in wheelchairs,” said Foerster. “We try to be all-inclusive as possible.”
Tanya Bouchard, 41, of Fulshear is an amputee. She also portrays one of the better-known Expanded Universe characters, Mara Jade-Skywalker.
“I am a right leg below the knee amputee (with a robotic prosthetic leg) and I love being able to show others, especially children, that having a disability of any kind shouldn’t stop you from putting on that costume and having a great time, also to not be afraid to get out there and just have fun and help others while you are at it,” she said.
Bouchard could not meet with the others at the Palladium due to recent surgery, but she shared her enthusiasm for the group and her anticipation for the new movie with the Fort Bend Star.
“Not a lot of people are familiar with Mara Jade because she is part of the Expanded Universe, but she started out as a servant and smuggler and fought her way up to Jedi Master and I love portraying such a strong female character,” she said. “She is a true fighter and I can relate to her on so many levels.”
Also unable to attend the gathering but equally enthusiastic about Star Wars is Jason Hardin, 43, of Richmond. He plays a black-armored Republic Commando of the Omega Squad.
“The Republic Commandos were the elite squads of the Clone Army that worked in small groups. At the time I made my costume I was on the SWAT team at a local police department, so I naturally gravitated towards them,” he said.
Being a part of the 501st is a huge commitment in terms of time and money. It can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to make an outfit depending on how detailed and elaborate the costumer wants to be. The main thing is that the costume be as “screen accurate” as possible. In order to participate, the costume has to go through an approval process.
Karl Gehring, 37, of Sugar Land is very familiar with the process. He has been a member since 2002 and has eight approved costumes with more in the works.
“I built this one specifically for Rogue One,” he said, referring to his Shoretrooper outfit from the new movie. It had just been approved and is one of the first worldwide.
Not only does the legion not discriminate against handicaps, it is also inclusive of people of all sizes and shapes.
“There is no limit on height or weight … your costume has to fit the certain individual,” Foerster said.
Not only are the costumes checked for accuracy, but so are the weapons. Many of the members make their own outfits. They can purchase kits online or they can create their own apparatus. They occasionally hold armor parties where they come together and buy, sell and trade costume parts and help each other with their costumes. They can do the same online in forums and chat rooms.
Aside from their love of Star Wars, the costumers use their hobby to help charitable causes. They don’t charge for appearances, instead asking that people donate to a charity of choice. Frequently they make appearances at children’s hospitals and do work with Make A Wish.
Gehring serves as the charity officer for the Star Garrison and is also on the 501st Legion’s charity staff. He said they recently created an endowment with Make A Wish and hope to raise $150,000 by 2021.
“My responsibility is to look after our endowment with Make A Wish,” he said.
This year the City of Houston invited the Star Garrison to march in the Thanksgiving Day Parade and they are scheduled for the Christmas parade as well. They also make appearances at conventions, movie premiers, comic book launches and other events. Damian Hebert pointed out that they have to pace themselves at events and drink lots of water. It is usually 10 degrees warmer inside the costume than the ambient air temperature and there is no circulation unless the costume was designed with fans.
“We like to sweat,” he joked.
Nearly every member said they do what they do to see the smiles on people’s faces, especially children battling cancer and other health issues.
“I love watching children and adults reactions to seeing their favorite character standing right in front of them. It feels wonderful being able to make someone else happy,” Hardin said.
“It felt so good to be someone’s hero for a day,” Jeff Hebert said.
“I have seen all the work they have done with charity events and with children and I thought it was amazing to see the smiles and joy from all those kids when they see the 501st walk up,” Bouchard said.
Foerster came by it naturally after spending time tagging along with his dad while he played Santa Claus at Texas Children’s Hospital.
“I can carry on that tradition of trying to do something for the children,” he said.
There are perks to being in the legion as well. Gehring was able to attend the red carpet premier of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” last weekend. He also said that music parody icon Weird Al Yankovic is a big fan of the legion and often invites members of concerts and meet-and-greet events.
“The camaraderie of all the awesome people in the group and being able to help the community and others while having so much fun doing something you are all passionate about,” Bouchard said. “It keeps me young!”
Those who have not seen the movie yet said they are looking forward to learning about the events leading up to the original “Star Wars” movie.
“I am looking forward to it,” Hardin said. “I think it will fill in a lot of blanks between Episodes 3 and 4, and answer a lot of questions the fans have about the story. And hopefully, it will open the door for more offshoot films about the Star Wars universe.”
“I am of course excited for anything Star Wars related, especially the movies and although I am disappointed we won’t be seeing anything from the Expanded Universe, I am always happy to see a strong female lead,” added Bouchard.
Being in the 501st Legion or any of its sister organizations, such as the Rebel Legion, brings like-minded individuals together from many walks of life.
“It’s also a great way to show off the characters you love and to be able to hang out with such a fantastic group of people that share your love of Star Wars,” Bouchard said.