Meet the super-fans who are bringing Star Wars to life 

So you want to be a stormtrooper?

click to enlarge _cover_1_jwb-edit.jpg

Jonathan Boncek

Jason Boyd has been a stormtrooper for a little more than three years — a sandtrooper to be exact. In those three years, he has learned what it means to deal with the day-to-day struggles of serving the Empire, whether it be on the untamed planets of the Outer Rim or South Carolina's Lowcountry.

The first thing to watch out for is armor bite. That's when two pieces of a trooper's armor pinch together, usually leaving a bruise. The next thing to keep in mind is that once a trooper suits up, they can't sit down. The armor won't allow it.

"Some of the biker scouts can sit down, but for me as a stormtrooper or a sandtrooper, you can't sit down. Once I put on the suit, if I drop something on the floor, I can't bend over or anything. It's almost like being in a diving suit. I get every single thing on and have my helmet ready to go, but I'll wait until the absolute last second to put it on," says Boyd.

This limited mobility can mean spending hours on your feet guarding tractor-beam control units or trying to find those droids you're looking for, so you're going to need to remember to stay hydrated. As part of the 501st Legion and member of the Mos Eisley Police Department, Boyd must remind his fellow members to take water breaks and to not wander off on hot days because no one wants to risk finding a dehydrated stormtrooper passed out in the bathroom.

"I know Darth Vader gets extremely hot," says Boyd. "Sometimes I'll go up to him, and kind of whisper in his ear, 'You need a water break.' He'll go hours without drinking and at the end of the day, he's like, 'I don't feel so good.' I'm like, 'Dude, you need water. You're hot. You're wearing leather and wool and plastic.'"

click to enlarge Jason Boyd is one of more than 8,250 active members of the 501st Legion - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Jason Boyd is one of more than 8,250 active members of the 501st Legion

Fortunately, Boyd's armor has an internal fan system. It's not much, but it's enough to keep his lenses from fogging up on a humid Charleston day. Also, the lenses in a stormtrooper's helmet aren't black, as they appear. They're dark green, which means everything Boyd sees is emerald tinted. This is the world through the eyes of a trooper.

Attack of the Clones

A 35-year-old Charleston native with a wife and two daughters, Boyd grew up on James Island. He first felt the call to join the Empire around 2011. He now serves as commanding officer for the Carolina Garrison of the 501st Legion, an international organization with three simple goals: promote interest in Star Wars, facilitate the use of highly detailed costumes, and contribute to charity efforts in any way possible. Boyd first saw the 501st up close at a Star Wars convention in 2009, and from that point on, he was destined for the dark side.

"As soon as I came back, I told my wife, 'I want to do that. I want to dress up like a stormtrooper.' At that time, I think I just wanted to do it because I wanted the armor, but then I started researching a little bit more about what the 501st does," says Boyd. "We do it because we are fans of the films, but we also help out charities and things like that."

At last count, the 501st has more than 8,250 active members all across the globe, and each and every one of them has to pass a rigorous approval process to guarantee the strict standards of the organization are maintained. In the same way a youngling was once required to construct his or her own lightsaber before becoming a Jedi Knight, Boyd spent more than $1,400 and over a year working to assemble his sandtrooper armor. Once complete, his armor was evaluated by a garrison membership liaison who is tasked with ensuring each member's costume is as screen accurate as possible. With more than 300 costumes in the 501st's Costume Reference Library and an ever-expanding set of guidelines, the process can be grueling. Then you have to deal with telling your parents.

Brad Butler has resisted the power of the dark side - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Brad Butler has resisted the power of the dark side

"There are some people that when I say, 'I dress up like a Star Wars character,' they laugh at it, but everyone's been supportive. My parents were a little weird about it. They didn't get it," says J.P. Morgan, who enlisted in the 501st as a TIE fighter pilot in September and serves in the Jolly Roger Squadron. "My dad was a high school football coach. He's a jock, but he was supportive. He said, 'I like Star Wars, but I don't quite understand this.' It was a little off to him, but once he saw everything, he thought it was cool. That's how it is with most people who don't understand what we do at first."

But like most things in this galaxy or the next, there is more to the 501st than is seen at first glance, and behind all the plastic and blasters is a force for good.

"You'll get those few people that are skeptical, and you ask, 'Well, what are you into?' and they say, 'Sports.' Everyone's into their own thing, but most of the time when they say, 'Well, you dress up?' I show them a picture and tell them why we do it," says Boyd. "We do the parades and the movie premieres and the conventions, and those are fun times, but our main focus is the charity work and just trying to do good."

The Empire Gives Back

Brad Butler didn't know what he was getting into when he became an X-wing pilot. At first, he just thought of how much fun it would be to wear the costume and be a member of the Rebel Legion, a sort of sister organization to the 501st made up of the good guys in the Star Wars universe.

"I had known about the 501st from comic book conventions and events, but it seemed a little out there for me. Then I slowly started researching and found the Rebel Legion," says Butler, leader of the Graveyard Squadron. "I always considered myself a good guy. Everybody's always into the bad guys, especially with Star Wars, but I was obsessed with pilots. That's what I wanted to be when I was a kid. It'll be two years in March since I joined and got approved as an X-wing pilot."

It was after becoming an official member that Butler truly discovered what it meant to be a good guy. Joined by fellow Legion members and the ranks of the 501st, he's continued to give back any way he can.

"I didn't realize the benefit of the things we do for kids and charities at first. When that hit me, I was caught off guard, but that's my favorite part now," Butler says. "The conventions are fun, but seeing the kids light up is a whole different thing. Getting to give back to charities is great. We do a lot of different events to raise money. A lot of guys do hospital visits and visit cancer patients around the country."

According to the 501st website, members helped raise more than $260,000 through their own efforts in 2013 and attended events that helped raise more than $32 million for charity. With almost 29,000 man hours spent at fundraisers and charity events that year alone, it's clear that the most important aspect of suiting up is to give back to those in need.

click to enlarge J.P. Morgan is a new recruit to the ranks of the Carolina Garrison - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • J.P. Morgan is a new recruit to the ranks of the Carolina Garrison

"I've wanted to do this because I love kids. In their minds, you really are those characters. That's all they know, and that's all they see. That's why I've always wanted to do it, to help kids," says Morgan. "There was a kid who was two years old, maybe a year and a half. He was a little, handicapped child. The way he came over and hugged Jason while he was in his full stormtrooper outfit, it was the first time I had experienced anything like that. Then he came over to me and held his arms up wanting me to hold him. I'm holding him, and he's just wide-eyed looking at us. That's when I decided it was all worth it. It really took me a long time to get approved, but every dollar I spent, every frustrating moment that I had, was completely worth it, just at that moment."

For Morgan, being a member of the 501st in Charleston is about bringing these otherworldly characters home. Local children don't have to go anywhere special to see stormtroopers and Jedi. They're in their hometown. And for some kids with little to look forward to, seeing a character from their favorite movie brought to life is worth more than you can imagine.

"The charity stuff is what I think we are all mostly doing it for. We've gone to MUSC hospital before, and we've been in the children's ward. As rewarding as it was, that was one of the toughest things I've ever done," says Boyd. "There was a moment where this little girl, a cancer patient, I don't know why, but she latched on to me. I was glad I had the helmet on because I was tearing up. For the whole two hours we were there, she just followed me around. We painted pictures together. That was great, but ever since then I haven't had the courage to visit another children's hospital. It kind of hits home, having two little kids. It's so hard seeing sick children. It breaks your heart, but then at the same time, for the two hours you're there, they forget they're sick."

A New Hope

It's important to remember your first time. It starts out slow. The opening credits float over a backdrop of empty, deep space, disappearing into infinity. A starship flies over, and it seems like it will last forever. Then inevitably you're pulled down to the planet below. But while Star Wars all started in 1977 with A New Hope, the starting point is different for each generation. "I was born in 1980, and I saw Return of the Jedi in '83 at the old Citadel Mall theater. That was the only one I saw in person. The other ones I actually watched on video disc. That's the first way I saw A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back," says Boyd. "I saw Return of the Jedi in theater. I was only three, but I remember it. I remember my mom walking out right around the time Jabba the Hutt came on. She didn't like it, so she left the theater. I just sat there with my dad watching the rest of it. There's something about it."

Morgan says it was about nine years ago that he got back into Star Wars. He picked up one of the movies to rewatch and fell in love with the lore.

"I guess what started getting it going again was there is so much to the Star Wars universe. It's so expansive, and every little character in Star Wars is important and has a name," he says. "Every background character has a background of their own, and it's just something that you can continuously grow on while you're learning about it."

click to enlarge Yes, these guys do lead somewhat normal lives - JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek
  • Yes, these guys do lead somewhat normal lives

Butler was 11 or 12 when an older kid he met on vacation asked if he wanted to watch Star Wars. They watched the entire original trilogy during the trip. As Butler learned back then, the beauty of any piece of art is that it can be shared. Handed between peers and passed from generation to generation, some things withstand the test of time long enough to become a permanent piece of our shared culture — something to build and expand upon, something to unite us.

"My daughter absolutely loves it. We tried to go see Santa Claus last night. She's terrified of Santa Claus, but loves Darth Vader," says Butler, whose family isn't alone in their shared love of Star Wars.

"I was born in 1980, so my dad saw it in '77. He introduced it to me, and now I'm hooked. I carry that on, and now I have two daughters. We watch the cartoons. They have the cups and the cereal bowls, and they're freaking out over it too," says Boyd. "As their dad and loving Star Wars, I try not to push it on them. They kind of naturally took to it. They see me dress up as a sandtrooper and they see other characters. My dad's a TIE pilot, so it's like a whole family affair. My daughters have kind of clung on to it without me having to push them."

As the love of all things Star Wars has become more widespread, even mainstream, many longtime fans may be reluctant to give up the franchise that they hold so dear out of fear of losing what makes it special. In this case, it's important to remember that much like the Force, Star Wars surrounds us. It binds us.

"It's the same as with your favorite band. Some band that you've loved for years gets famous and gets notoriety, and you had a connection to their music. All of a sudden, this connection is being shared with thousands of other people, and you want it to be your own, but you have to be open-minded and let it be shared," says Morgan. "Whatever this thing you love made you feel, it could make other people feel the same way. That's definitely how I feel about Star Wars."

Morgan, like other diehard fans, was deeply affected by the news of another Star Wars film. He says he didn't think he would ever see another movie after the prequels that would get him this excited and renew his hope for the franchise. Like many across the world, he watched the trailer for The Force Awakens through a veil of tears. And whether it's a film or a song, a story or any other work of art, the most important thing is that you feel something when you see it. What matters is that you connect with some emotion or memory when you hear it, and maybe that can take you to a time long, long ago.

"I cried when I saw the trailer. I did. I don't know why, but it just hit something in me, something I didn't even know was there. It was the love that I have for these films, but it also connected me to seeing the films with my dad," says Boyd. "When I hear certain music cues or certain scenes, it reminds me of watching it on the couch with my dad. We still go to the theater today to see all kinds of stuff, but I think that's my biggest relationship with Star Wars. It has such a special place in my heart that it's more than just a film. It's hard to describe the amount of love you have for it. I mean, has anyone ever loved something so much for that many years? Not many people can say that."


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