It’s strange when children run toward the bad guy and even stranger still when they’re afraid of the good guy.
This is sometimes the reality for La Habra Sgt. Rob Diehl.
“Being a police officer, you want to help people but sometimes you don’t get the feedback you want,” Diehl said. “Sometimes you go to a home with parents who have committed a crime and the children are afraid of you and you can’t explain to them that you are, in fact, the good guy.”
While this isn’t the everyday norm of his job in law enforcement, it happens and it can wear, Diehl said.
So when it gets tough, Diehl turns to the dark side.
Diehl, a 13-year veteran of the La Habra PD, is a Storm Trooper with Vader’s Fist: 501st Legion — a worldwide nonprofit founded in 1997 that brings together Star Wars costume enthusiasts who want to put their hobby to good use.
Diehl donates his time to various charitable organizations, including fundraisers for the Mariposas Foundation and events to benefit children and adults diagnosed with Williams Syndrome — a genetic developmental disorder.
“My normal job can be stressful so this is just a way to get away from that,” he said. “It’s really good for me emotionally to go to events like this.
“Technically I’m the bad guy, but these kids don’t care.”
Diehl also shows up at birthday parties or weddings, but even those are philanthropic because to hire the 501st, you have to pick a charity to donate to, he said.
And no matter the event, the children come running when Diehl and other members of the Legion show up.
“At one event, there was a boy on his death bed who, when he heard we were there, got up and came down,” Diehl said. “He passed away two months later, but when he was there with us, he didn’t seem like he was sick at all.”
Diehl knows he had an impact, even if only briefly, on that young boy’s life, which is why he stays dedicated to the 501st.
“It’s really rewarding to meet the kids and their families,” he said. “They really get a kick out of it.”
Cultivating the Force
Like many 6-year-old boys in 1977, Diehl immediately fell in love with Star Wars.
George Lucas’ mythological world that pitted good against evil was like nothing Diehl had ever seen.
“It blew my mind,” Diehl said. “I always liked the Empire, though.”
The sergeant kept figurines from his childhood in pristine condition and continued to cultivate movie memorabilia from posters to replicas of Galactic Empire ships.
Now it’s all on display in Diehl’s two-story home.
Five multi-shelved glass cases are set up in his entryway and hallway— four of which are dedicated to Star Wars, with one showcasing World of Warcraft keepsakes.
Having played hockey for 20 years, Diehl also has jerseys, medals, photographs and other sports artifacts posted on his walls among photos of his family — his wife, Kristi, and daughters Kimberly, 9, and Kaycee, 4.
Giant flags representing several NFL teams also hang from the ceiling and a massive Indominus Rex head that Diehl built for his daughter’s Jurassic World birthday party is mounted on a wall.
Theirs is a space made for lovers of all things science fiction and sports.
In 2011, Diehl upped his collection game even more.
After visiting an exhibit at the Discovery Cube Orange County in Santa Ana, which included volunteers decked out in movie-accurate costumes, Diehl found his next project: becoming a Storm Trooper.
Becoming a Trooper
Diehl simply is made to be an elite member of the Imperial Army.
“I just thought they were cool looking, and I’m too short to be Darth Vadar,” he said. “I’m 5’9”, which is the exact height of a Storm Trooper. My body dimensions are just perfect for it.”
A suit can range from about $1,000 to $2,000, depending on the quality and accessories.
Diehl had his costume built in England. The armor was constructed out of PVC plastic using some of the molds from the original 1977 film, he said.
He also has two, movie-quality Storm Trooper weapons, but the 501st has suspended use of the replica blasters after the November Paris terrorist attacks.
“It’s sad because the kids really loved those,” he said. “They love to hold them and fire them, but it’s on hold for now.”
Once a suit is built, it must be approved by a committee before a new trooper can join the 501st.
Molds have to be precise and the color exact.
When it’s on, it has to look as if the wearer just stepped off the Death Star.
“Lucasfilm, and now Disney, allows the 501st to operate so there are very specific guidelines the Legion has to follow,” Diehl said. “It’s very stringent.”
For the sergeant, Empire costumes are not a one-and-done deal, either.
He is currently building a Kashyyyk Trooper and a Sand Trooper — a suit he’s rubbed Hershey’s cocoa powder on to replicate weathering — that might one day also join the 501st.
Diehl also is one of only about 300 people to purchase a Storm Trooper kit from the recently released film, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which Diehl really enjoyed but said the original remains his all-time favorite.
No matter which Evil Empire character Diehl will play as he continues to volunteer for the Legion, he said he looks most forward to helping children who need it most to escape to a galaxy far, far away.
“Some of these kids are in a really bad way, but when they see you they don’t seem to notice anymore,” he said. “That is what makes a difference to me.”