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Soldier brings 'Star Wars' to hospitalized Alaska children

Staff Sgt. Zachary WolfJBER
Air Force Staff Sgt. Patrick Walsh in outfit on JBER. Photo courtesy of Staff Sgt. Zachary Wolf

In a galaxy not so far away, there is a special room in a children's hospital filled with children of all ages. Today, they have looks of excitement on their faces. Today, they get to meet Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers. The children's faces light up as more costumed volunteers walk in dressed like Imperial Officers, Biker Scouts, and even bounty hunters like Boba Fett.

The joy and excitement in the room are very real, and it's that reaction that inspires a Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson airman to suit up and head out to volunteer in the community. 

Air Force Staff Sgt. Patrick Walsh, a Fitzgerald, Ga., native, works at the 673d Communications Squadron as a cyber transport supervisor. The 11-year veteran joined a local chapter of the 501st Legion, "Vader's Fist" initially due to his interest in the Star Wars movie franchise, but it morphed into something more. 

"Back in 2002, I was stationed at Ramstein (Air Base, Germany) and got word of a gaming conference down at Leipzig, so I went down there and right outside, I ran into a group of Stormtroopers, Boba Fett, and Darth Vader," Walsh said.

Walsh asked where they got their costumes and learned they had made them themselves.

"After I left, I searched online for a costume and over the years, it never materialized," Walsh said. "It's always been 'One day I will be a Stormtrooper.'"

Two years ago, Walsh bought a Stormtrooper kit on impulse and decided to look up the 501st Legion to get help setting it up. 

Walsh introduced himself to the local 501st Alaskan Outpost, Aurora Borealis, to get some local help. While he was getting advice, he also got to know the people in the group.

During his first two years at JBER, Walsh started attending events as a handler, where he would make sure the people in costumes had what they needed, like water, and help them put on their costumes and walk around -- as some of the costumes have limited visibility.

"In these two years, I learned what the 501st actually does, which made me want to be an official member even more," Walsh said. 

But the defining moment that cemented his desire came on Halloween 2011. 

"It was Anchorage Trick-or-Treat about two years ago and I was doing handler duties," Walsh said. "It was this little girl, maybe 2 or 3 years old, who walked up to Lisa, an outpost member at the time, who was wearing Boushh -- which is the bounty hunter outfit Princess Leia wore when she went to go save Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt. This little girl walked up and just stood there for a second. I was like 'What's going on?' Lisa got down to one knee and the little girl gave her a huge hug."

"Just seeing some of the reactions when you are at an event, you've got some kids where you can just see the wheels turning -- their imaginations are just going wild. You have some who are scared and run off and some that just stare at you. It's not just kids. You have adults, too, that say 'Ooh a Stormtrooper! Let me get a picture with him.'"

So Walsh officially became one of the 6,400 active members worldwide. In the Legion, he is known as TK 56537.

There are three basic goals for the Legion. The first is to promote interest in Star Wars. The creativity of the members building replica costumes encourages fans to get together and share their love of Star Wars with the public and other fans.

The second goal is to use the costumes they create. They encourage wearing the costumes rather than just having them sit on a shelf somewhere. Some people collect things and want them to stay in "mint condition," for value, but for the 501st, the value is in wearing the costume and sharing that joy with others.

The third goal is to contribute to the local community. Members do this through fundraising, charity work and volunteering. The most recognized work the members of the 501st do is with the Make-A-Wish foundation, bringing a light of happiness to the lives of children who are ill. 

It's the volunteerism that draws a lot of people to be a part of "Vader's Fist."

"The 501st is 100 percent volunteers," Walsh said. "No one gets paid anything." 

According to 501st officials, in 2011 they raised more than $270,000 in direct charitable donations and participated in events that helped raise $11.6 million worldwide.

"The volunteer portion appeals to me more than actually creating the costumes, going to the conventions and all that," Walsh said. "It is that aspect that really made me want to get into the 501st."

Walsh has participated in different local events around the Anchorage area as part of the Aurora Borealis Outpost. He volunteered for multiple Anchorage Trick-or-Treat celebrations, the Military Appreciation Day Picnic, Star Wars Read Day, and even a fundraiser for an animal shelter. 

"It's a hobby, it's fun, and it's just one of those things where I found a way to volunteer in a way I actually enjoy," Walsh said.

This sentiment was echoed by Master Sgt. Paul Thomas, 673d Communications Squadron cyber transport section chief. Thomas said that he was not initially aware of how much of a role Star Wars played in Walsh's life, but after talking with him about it, it became very apparent. 

"I became aware that he would volunteer his off-duty time wearing his costume to support fundraisers and provide entertainment," Thomas said. "If you talk to Sergeant Walsh about the events he supports, your initial thought is 'Wow, you are engaged in an event almost every month; this is like a year-round gig.'" 

Volunteering looks great on an Enlisted Performance Report in the Air Force, but that's not why Walsh volunteers these days.

"I was one of those guys that just did whatever volunteer events I needed to do just to fill the spot on the EPR, but since I started working with the outpost members, the 501st, I found myself doing a lot more volunteer stuff and actually enjoying it," Walsh said.

Staff Sgt. Zachary Wolf works in public relations at Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson in Anchorage.