When Jeff Breckon, a team lead in SRP’s Desktop Management department, walks down the hall of the hospital, kids get wide-eyed and even doctors stop to stare. That’s because he’s not there as a patient, visitor or caretaker. He’s there as a Stormtrooper.
It’s part of the work he does as a member of the Dune Sea Garrison. The Garrison is the Arizona chapter of the international 501st Legion, an all-volunteer organization of more than 7,000 Star Wars diehards. Its members create high-quality, screen-accurate costumes of Star Wars villains and act as “bad guys doing good” at charity events.
“I saw Star Wars in the theater when I was 7 years old,” said Breckon, a self-described “huge Star Wars nerd” who has a room full of collectibles at home, memorabilia at work and even a Star Wars sticker on his car. “Since the very first scene when the Stormtroopers come piling in, it was like, ‘That’s what I want to be. I want to do that someday.'”
He’s living that dream while showing the softer side of a Stormtrooper by fighting not for the Galactic Empire but for sick children. He and the Dune Sea Garrison participate in events to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and they make regular visits to Phoenix Children’s Hospital and Banner Children’s at Cardon Children’s Medical Center to bring smiles to the faces of sick children.
“When you go to these hospitals, these kids just run up to you,” he said. “You’re a complete stranger, and they just run up and hug you.”
And they waste no time getting to the bottom of what’s going on. Breckon, who has been a member of the group for more than a year, said he often gets asked if he knows Darth Vader, if he has been on the Death Star and, perhaps the most pointed question, “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?” (He’s 5-foot-6 and no doubt has to resist the urge to quote Yoda — “Judge me by my size, do you?”) When they ask for his name, he gives them what any good Stormtrooper would — his TK, or designation, number: TK-82287.
Out of all the events the Dune Sea Garrison participates in, the hospital visits mean the most to Breckon.
“That’s to me what this whole thing is about,” Breckon said. “It’s a cool feeling to go into the hospitals and know that for just a moment you’re making the kids forget that they’re fighting cancer or some other horrible disease.”
Of course, the hospital visits are bittersweet. Children’s faces light up when they see the Stormtroopers, but the fact that many of them are battling terminal illnesses is never far from Breckon’s mind.
“I remember we were doing a troop through Phoenix Children’s Hospital, and they told us that the kid they really wanted us to see couldn’t come out to see us because his white blood cell count was too low,” Breckon recalled. “They said we could go up and put our hands on his window though. And this kid put his hand on the window too. And it was like, ‘Oh dear god.’ It’s a good thing the kids can’t see our faces, because we get misty sometimes.
“But it’s super rewarding. You know in some small way you’re making a difference to these kids who are fighting for their lives.”
One of those kids was Richard “Bubba” Forte, the grandson of Christy Eubanks, a Business Account Manager at SRP. Bubba battled a rare liver cancer for more than two years before going into remission at age 11. Last October, Breckon and two other Stormtroopers showed up at Cardon Children’s for Bubba’s “last day of chemo” party.
“We didn’t tell Bubba they were coming,” Eubanks said. “They came in there, and he just stared at them for a minute. The kids and doctors at the hospital went crazy.”
The Stormtroopers gave Bubba a Star Wars action figure and stayed with him as he rang a bell at the hospital in celebration of his last chemotherapy treatment. It’s moments like this that give Breckon a greater perspective on life.
“All the things that you think are so horrible aren’t. You see these kids, and you leave and think, ‘I have an amazing life,'” he said. “Bubba has been through more than most adults. That kid stared death in the face every day for years. Here I am just dressing up in plastic, trying to make a difference. I don’t know how they do it.”
Eubanks said they do it with support from people like Breckon. “I cannot express the joy he brings to the children with cancer he visits,” she added. “It makes these kids feel special. It makes them feel cool. I don’t think Jeff will ever understand how much he did for Bubba.”
The force is strong with this one.
Jeff Breckon’s costume can’t be bought at a Halloween pop-up store. Those who wish to join the 501st Legion must have costumes that meet specific criteria, and they have to submit photos of themselves in costume to ensure they’re up to par.
Breckon bought the white plastic pieces of his Stormtrooper costume for about $260 from a man who makes them locally. He then had to buy accessories and electronics (the costume has a fan built into the helmet and plays an audio clip of Stormtrooper chatter). It took him about a year to gather everything he needed and tailor the pieces to fit him.
When it comes to getting suited up, Breckon starts with an Under Armour under suit. Then he attaches the thigh pieces, which are held up with the equivalent of garters. Then come the shins, torso pieces, boots and arm pieces, which require some help. And once it’s on, forget sitting.
“You’re super self-conscious wearing it the first time in public,” Breckon said. “It feels like you’re walking around in your underwear.”
In the summer, it can get hot in there, but Breckon said it’s not too different from walking around in normal clothes. And it certainly doesn’t smell as bad as the inside of a tauntaun.
“Everyone has a container of Clorox wipes,” he said. “The costume ends up looking like a cold drink on a hot day.”