Saturday, February 4, 2023

Empire Strikes Back in Tennessee: Students Volunteer With Star Wars-Themed Group

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Story by Matthew Giffin | News Editor

After his first day of classes on Aug. 22, Christian Dunham, a junior at Middle Tennessee State University, spent his evening at Old Natchez Country Club in Franklin, Tennessee. That night, he played the role of a Stromtrooper, an evil, space-age soldier from the Star Wars franchise. He crowded behind a curtain with his Stormtrooper squad, and a few other Star Wars antagonists, including Darth Vader, until they revealed themselves to a packed room.

The sci-fi baddies had banded together to crash the SW and Friends Charity Golf Classic and presented a terminally ill young man with tickets to the Star Wars-themed Galaxy’s Edge park in Disney World and a check. These gifts were provided by Dreams and Wishes of Tennessee, a nonprofit group similar to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. In addition, Dunham’s costumed group, all volunteer members of the 501st Legion, stayed afterward to meet with the young man’s family and take pictures to capture the special moment.

A squad of 501st Legion Stormtroopers pose at the 16th annual SW and Friends Charity Golf Classic for Dreams and Wishes of Tennessee at Old Natchez Country Club in Franklin, Tennessee. MTSU student Christian Dunham kneels in front of a sign. (Photo by Tammey Davis)

The 501st Legion is an international nonprofit membered by fans who volunteer their time to assemble screen-accurate costumes of Star Wars villains and antiheroes, promoting the Star Wars franchise and portraying its characters for charity events. The 25-year-old organization requires its members to provide their own costumes that must be strictly accurate to how they appear in the movies and shows.

Alongside the 501st, there are volunteers who dress up as Star Wars good guys for the Rebel Legion, another international nonprofit. For fans of the Mandalorian series on Disney Plus, the Mando Mercs dress up exclusively in screen-accurate Mandalorian armor.

Disney recently enlisted members of the 501st to portray Stormtroopers on-screen for scenes in The Mandalorian and Obi-Wan Kenobi, shows available to stream on Disney Plus.

Dunham, who studies in the College of Media and Entertainment, has been a member of the 501st for two years now. The film enthusiast joined during the height of MTSU’s Covid-19 restrictions, which he said gave him the time he needed to assemble his Stormtrooper costume. It took him roughly six months to shape and paint the raw materials he had into the costume he now has. Moreover, he says he is about halfway through 3D-printing all the parts he needs for a C-3PO costume. 

Dunham has also suited up as a member of the Tennessee Ghostbusters and the Cosplay Collective, which are similar organizations to the 501st that enlist their members to work at charity events, parades and other occasions in costumes.

“I’ve always been a big fan of Star Wars,” Dunham said. “When I was 15 or 16, I stumbled upon the 501st and said, ‘I wanna do that. That’s cool, what they do.’” He recalled watching an online video of a squad of 501st members visiting a hospital and entertaining patients. “That was what really drew me to them,” he said. “Those are actual, good guys. They want to do good in their communities.”

MTSU senior Nathaniel Wilkie dons his Imperial Staff Officer costume and leans on the Lucky Blue Horseshoe in Walnut Grove. (Photo by Seth Woodruff)

Dunham waited patiently for several years to do that same good, since he had to be at least 18 years old to meet the 501st’s age requirement.

And his desire to do good in the community was something Dunham spread to his friend Nathaniel Wilkie, a senior aerospace student at Middle Tennessee. Another Star Wars fan, Wilkie spent all of 2021 assembling his costume. After finally joining in April of this year, he has suited up in a black and gray Imperial Staff Officer suit. “Many of my duties involve doing Lord Vader’s bidding and leading the troops,” he said jokingly.

“Once I met several of the other people in our local 501st garrison, I knew it was something I wanted to volunteer my time for,” Wilkie said.

 Dunham and Wilkie, close friends, both hope to dress in Star Wars costumes with 501st Legion, making kids and adults smile, until their bodies give out.

To contact News Editor Matthew Giffin, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, visit www.mtsusidelines.com, or follow us on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines or on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

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