The Good Batch: 501st Legion Star Wars cosplayers are bad guys making the city a better place

Vader And Storm Troopers

The 501st Legion Star Wars cosplayers. // Photos by Jim Thayne and Angela Stokes

In St. Louis, there was a horrific car accident.

A 12-year-old boy survived. The crash killed his parents and his brother was left in critical condition. His grandfather had only one plan for how to provide a spark of joy that would distract the shell-shocked kid from the apocalyptic situation he was attempting to navigate. He called for help from the one thing that unequivocally cracks a smile on anyone’s face: a little magic from a galaxy far, far away.

The boy’s grandpa didn’t call for the aid of a lightsaber-wielding Jedi. Instead, he reached out to Rich Heffernan, a professional Darth Vader and the Commander of the 70th Explorers Garrison.

The Garrison is a branch of a global nonprofit called The 501st Legion—a Star Wars cosplay group that does live-action roleplay for charity. This was precisely the kind of mission that Heffernan and his Stormtroopers gear up to engage.

Without a second thought, a squad of troopers was ready to march.

Heffernan took the opportunity to provide a spark of hope, despite the concerns of the hospital holding the child. Official policy was to keep weekday visits to a minimum, but no one wants to tell a group of hard-headed Stormtroopers what they can and cannot do.

“We got in trouble for it, but we didn’t care,” Heffernan says with a laugh. “They weren’t mean or anything. They just kind of scolded me for a little bit.”

The grandparent forewarned the squadron of soldiers that the kid they were engaging with might not respond at all—he was nearly catatonic from processing such excessive tragedy.

“We went in there and we had the kid out, walking around, talking, jumping,” Heffernan says. “Completely 100% turn from what we were told to expect.”

While the Galactic Empire isn’t exactly known as a beacon of positivity, the Garrison’s hospital visits are a common occurrence, as are its hosted pancake breakfasts and group marches by the houses of ill children. The 501st is known for launching an eclectic series of public events, always with the intention of raising funds for various charitable organizations. Just as with any great Star Wars story, it’s the individual, meaningful moments that leave an impression. Like invading a children’s hospital to brighten the day of one traumatized child, no matter how many administrators stand in its way. It’s a raiding party of joy.

“Seeing him light up like that, this is why I do it,” Heffernan says.

Group Photo

The 501st Legion Star Wars cosplayers. // Photos by Jim Thayne and Angela Stokes

The power of the Dark Side

The 501st is a real-life organization, based on a fictional group of elite soldiers commanded by the most infamous Sith Lord himself, Darth Vader. Referred to as Vader’s First in Star Wars lore, these comically ineffective henchmen form an army that is hellbent on maintaining the fascist status quo. In Kansas City, these joyful recreationists want to do anything but.

“I would say 80% of what we do is actually related in some way, shape, or form either to supporting or trying to actually generate money for charity,” Heffernan says. His Garrison functions as a branch of an exponentially larger, expansive 501st nonprofit. There are 175 members in Missouri and Kansas, with 75 residing in KC alone.

The 14,495 registered 501st members stationed across the globe spend much of their time dressed up as Stormtroopers, Imperial Royal Guards, and other villain-aligned infantry. Still, it’s admittedly a bit jarring to see Darth Vader pocket his Force-choking hand to go on an Easter Egg hunt, while bounty hunters hand out baskets.

“If we know of a nonprofit or event that needs the participation, we’ll seek it out,” says 70th Explorers Garrison Firehawk Squad Leader Jim Thayne. “We’ll do Star Wars Day at Kauffman Stadium and Planet Comicon, but we’ll also show up to a terminally-ill child’s birthday in the middle of the week at six in the evening.”

Kansas Citians might spot seemingly ominous platoons of Stormtroopers walking in parades, participating in Step Up for Down Syndrome, or working with Children’s Mercy Hospital.

Many 501st events focus on the overall experience, but they do aim to raise money for those in need whenever possible. At Planet Comicon 2019, the group brought in $2,500. They also offer special interactions for a price, from standard photo-ops to the endlessly satisfying Blast-a-Trooper—where would-be Rebels only need three things: a few bucks, a Nerf gun, and sharp aim.

Nailing the bucket heads with a dart is fun on its own, but Garrison member Kristopher Heid says some light taunting might be the best way to keep Nerf gunners engaged.

“Every kid is a little different,” Heid says. “Some are even scared to approach us. I’ve taken off my helmet to show kids that I’m just a regular person underneath, so they know we’re all here to have a good time.”

The 2019 Comicon funds were submitted to Kansas City Hospice and Camps For Kids, while an additional $1,500 from Comicon 2021 went to Saint Luke’s Hospital.

In addition to local contributions, a percentage of fiscal intake is sent up-chain to a national 501st collaborative endowment fund, established for Make-a-Wish. The Garrison’s national participants have contributed $2,093 to that fund, which currently sits at $323,256 of its projected $501,000 goal.

It’s all part of the 501st’s charity umbrella: “Bad Guys Doing Good.”

A hive of scum and villainy

Whether Trooper, Vader, or something more “vile,” each cosplayer must have their self-crafted costume(s) approved if they want to join the Legion. Outfit production can cost the participants up to thousands of dollars, depending on the character being replicated and the level of dedication to detail.

“To get approved with the clubs, your costume has to be what we call ‘film-ready,’” Heid, who moonlights as Darth Revan, explains. “So, if you were asked to walk onto a Star Wars set, you would not look out of place. Sometimes that does give the misrepresentation that we’re very strict on our costuming and gatekeeping, but it’s not so much we’re gatekeeping—we just have a set of standards.”

Heid, Heffernan, Thayne, and the other thousands of 501st members put hundreds of hours into perfecting costumes and attending events, but they don’t get paid for the work they do.

The 74 members in Kansas City all have their own interests, careers, and families to go home to, but Star Wars is the passion that binds them. Between the blaster fights and squad meetings, Heid is a warehouse worker at Amazon, and Thayne is a claim adjuster. Heffernan, the head of 501st operations for two states, is an IT professional.

While Star Wars fans may not ever agree on the direction the franchise should take, the 501st is too focused on creating the perfect outfit to be bothered by the discourse. At least for her part, Lael Holloway doesn’t get too cross-Jaig-eyed about it.

Holloway collaborates with the Garrison as a member of the Rebel Legion and Mandalorian Mercs—two groups that are part of the Star Wars cosplaying community but are not officially affiliated with the 501st. She joined in March of last year after her son created a Captain Rex armor set that was approved at the height of lockdowns in April 2020.

Holloway says new spinoffs such as The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett on Disney+ simply add to the addictive art of costume-making.

“For example, I have the Mandalorian Armorer costume from The Mandalorian season one, and she also appeared in The Book of Boba Fett episode five,” Holloway says. “I immediately was drawn to, ‘What did they change? How is it different, and what kind of differences are there? Is it something I could easily do, to have a second costume that is both things, or is it changed enough that you would have to have two separate costumes?’”

Blast ’em

You’ll find the 501st’s mission statement on its website: “Some fans collect action figures. Others want to become action figures.” With its collective action in the community, the group certainly falls into the latter category. These satires of faux-war criminals are, somehow, the heroes KC deserves.

“I enjoy building the costumes, but it’s really about the charity events, meeting people, and making the world a better place,” Thayne says. “I don’t think there’s anybody in our group that would say anything different. We’re close-knit here in Kansas City.”

Yes, the 501st is held together at the (literal) seams, and there’s no sign that it won’t keep growing in its darkly comedic contributions to the city, the organizations that can always use more support, and individual children that might need a little spark of joy at their lowest point.

“One of my peers said it really well: ‘This is where your passion meets your purpose,’” Holloway says about posing as intergalactic police stationed in Missouri.

From First Order gear to TIE Fighter pilot attire, every plastic-coated commando hopes to make a difference in someone’s life. Anyone can submit a request for a public appearance, but instead of payment, the 501st asks those interested to donate toward one of the suggested organizations, which you can find via its website and social media pages.

The 501st’s 70th Explorers Garrison just made its 14th appearance at Planet Comicon Kansas City. Check its online event calendar for other opportunities to catch up to the cosplayers in person. And, as always, if you have someone in your orbit who could use a supportive raiding party, don’t hesitate to send a transmission to your friendly neighborhood Death Star.

Categories: Culture