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ORANG Chief turns to the ‘dark side’ for a good cause

ORANG Chief turns to the ‘dark side’ for a good cause

Members of the 501st Legion pose for a photo in downtown Portland, Ore. Chief Master Sgt. Brian Presson of the 142nd Medical Group, Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore., is a volunteer with the legion, a charity-focused group known as "Vader's Fist." (photo by Matthew Crowley)

ORANG Chief turns to the ‘dark side’ for a good cause

Chief Master Sgt. Brian Presson of the 142nd Medical Group, Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore. (second from left) and his wife, Heide join others from the Cloud City Garrison at a Star Wars event in Portland, Ore. Presson is a volunteer with the 501st Legion in Oregon, a charity-focused group known as "Vader's Fist." (courtesy photo)

PORTLAND, Ore. --

 Long before the idea of a Space Force hit the national discussion, Chief Master Sgt. Brian Presson was already serving in a “Galaxy Far, Far Away.”

Presson is an active member of the Cloud City Garrison of the 501st Legion in Oregon. The charitable-focused group is known as “Vader’s Fist”, has for years been making an impact on The Dark Side, albeit in a very positive way.

“The opportunity to learn from people with such talent is very rewarding,” he says of the 501st.

He is also the Chief Enlisted Manager at the 142nd Wing Medical Group, Detachment-1. He spent most of his military career in communications; joining the Washington Air National Guard in 1983 as a Telecommunications Specialist for the 256 Combat Communications Squadron, at Camp Murray in Tacoma, Wash. He eventually transferred to the Oregon Air National Guard’s 272 Combat Communications Squadron in June 1999.

His membership in the 501st Legion and the Air National Guard have common threads — both include civic involvement and charity work. The volunteerism and fund raising by the 501st help motivate Presson to stay involved.

The group’s website features a “Make a Wish” Endowment Fund. Their charity motto, “Bad Guys Doing Good” is not only for Darth Vader, Stormtroopers and the Imperial Army of the Dark Side — there is a similar group devoted to the Rebel Alliance.

It includes all the rebel faction characters such as A-Wing, B-Wing, Y-Wing, and X-Wing pilots, Calamari Generals, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Jedi Knights, and others.

But with everyone focused on charity efforts and supporting worthy causes, the only rivalry here between Rebel and Imperial forces is a friendly one.

“There is some light hearted ribbing that takes place occasionally, but honestly most members are part of both organizations,” Presson says. “We have several people who are Stormtroopers for the 501st, and also [play] X-Wing Pilots for [the] Rebel Legion.”

Events vary widely from conventions, charity events, movie openings, weddings, birthdays and church or community events. In one instance, Presson’s group attended a fundraiser event where the host donated $6,000 to a local autism society on behalf of the 501st Legion.

“Sometimes the children are severely disabled or sick, and they get so excited to see us troops — to be able to talk and interact with us,” Presson says.

Once, while attending a movie opening event in Vancouver Presson noticed a severely disabled man in a wheelchair. The man noticed Presson and his fellow Legion members while he and his caregiver were waiting to get tickets. Presson recalls the man getting very excited.

“I started walking over to him and he started bucking with excitement,” Presson says. “That was cool.”

Presson’s life-long obsession with Star Wars began at 13 when Episode IV: A New Hope was released in 1977. The hype surrounding the movie’s release and subsequent box office success inspired him into super-fan status.

“I remember seeing advertisements on TV prior to the release of the movie,” he says. “It was unlike anything that had come before it. It was an amazing story filled with positive images, and a fantasy that transported you someplace else.”

“As with most people, 13 is an awkward age, and it was also a time in my life where my family was dealing with a lot of uncertainty, and transition,” he added.

In addition to coming of age, his parents were caring for his maternal grandparents, while his father was wrapping up 21 years in the U.S. Army at Fort Sill, Okla., and his brother was going through a rebellious stage.

“Star Wars was a welcome diversion during such an unsettling time in my life,” Presson says. He remembers being so excited to see the movie, he waited all summer for its release in local theaters.

“I honestly don’t remember how many times I watched it over that summer, but it was a lot,” he recalls.

“From the very beginning I was enthralled with the Stormtroopers. I just thought they looked so cool,” he says.

In the early Star Wars days, any movie costume was hard to find, let alone a Stormtrooper’s uniform, but as the movie’s following grew, a devoted fan base began to coalesce around the characters’ costumes — and as luck would have it for Presson and others, the Stormtrooper uniforms became one of the more popular items.

“These kits were essentially copies of the molded pieces of plastic that you had to cut and glue to fit your size, and then assemble the pieces using elastic and snaps to connect joints.”

Presson first became aware of the 501st Legion in late 2013 after attending the Rose City Comic-Con, a convention focused on comic books and comic book culture. The multi-day events feature attendees wearing their favorite movie, comic book, or cartoon costumes.

Members of the 501st Legion are required to have an authentic Star Wars Imperial costume which meet exacting standards listed in the 501st Costume Reference Library. It also has to be approved by the local Garrison Membership Liaison.

In 2016, he was officially indoctrinated into The Dark Side of the Force. Soon, Presson found himself surrounded by talented individuals dedicated to the movie genre he had loved for so long.

“There are some amazingly talented people associated with our group,” Presson says. “Many have the ability to fabricate incredibly accurate props.”

Another parallel Presson sees between the 501st Legion and the National Guard is diversity.

“This is the best part of membership,” he says. “People from all age groups, walks of life, socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnic groups, religions, and nationalities [love] to see us.”

Best of all, Presson says, his love of all things Star Wars has become a shared passion with his wife, Heide, who plays the part of an Imperial Officer.

“My wife and I don’t share too many similar interests, however, this is one of them, and it’s something we get to do together,” he says. “Our time spent as Star Wars characters brings joy to others, and I think it’s always helpful to find different ways with which to connect with each other, this is just one more way.”

Being an official member of the 501st Legion is not for the faint of wallet — costs for approved costumes can range upwards of $2,000. Do-it-yourself armor kits can range between $300-$900, but accessories are extra.

“I have since purchased the long rifle (DLT-19), fans for the helmet, voice speaker system, and helmet padding,” Presson adds. “All-told I’ve probably put another $800-$1,000 into it over the cost of the [armor].”

Recently, Presson’s group has had to curtail events due to social distancing and stay-at-home restrictions imposed by COVID-19. Employing the “Power of the Dark Side” and a little bit of technology such as Zoom chats, they’ve been able to keep in touch with other members and keep their collective Star Wars passions alive.

“We will still attend events where we can keep physical separation, but it has been impacted pretty hard,” Presson says.

Presson sees his involvement in the 501st Legion as an impactful and positive experience. To anyone who might see his fascination with Star Wars as odd, he offers some Jedi-inspired wisdom.

“Don’t be afraid of who you are,” Presson says. “Experience the things that bring you joy, and don’t let others hold you back.”

If you are interested in learning more about the great community work being accomplished by the 501st Legion, visit www.501st.com, or the local Oregon Chapter, Cloud City Garrison, at https://cloudcitygarrison.starwarsoregon.com.