"Star Wars" and real wars have always been intertwined.
For Marine Sgt. Matthew Callahan, the Clone Troopers and Storm Troopers who came later are more than faceless bad guys. They are a way of making people unfamiliar with military life see conflict in a new light.George Lucas’ epic was inspired by the U.S. military’s experience in the Vietnam War. Lucas re-created images of U.S. troops in Huey helicopters in "Attack of the Clones," when Clone Troopers rode gunships into battle.
"Despite these epic, sprawling good and evil battles, there are still just real people fighting on either side that have their own personal stories to tell," Callahan told Marine Corps Times. "Whether or not they align with the super-good or the super-evil notions in stories of the universe they're fighting in, they're still just people."
Callahan, who works in a public affairs officer, has spent more than three years using "Star Wars" action figures to show Clone Troopers and Storm Troopers in real combat situations as part of an ongoing photo essay called "Galactic Warfighters riors."
"It's not a criticism of U.S. foreign policy or anything like that," he said. "It's just meant to tell the personal stories of the people embroiled in whatever conflicts there may be."
Callahan joined the Marines in 2009 as an assaultman. About a month into his deployment to Afghanistan, he snapped his leg in half after jumping into a wadi. While he was recovering in a wounded warrior battalion, he learned photography from public affairs officers.
"They put a camera in my hands and it was kind of a life-changing experience," he said.
In 2013, Callahan switched to public affairs and began photographing the "Star Wars" action figures while attending the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland. The project began as a way for him to hone his photography skills, but it became something more important.
Using figures of Clone Troopers, Callahan's pictures show military life in a way that service members can relate to, such as one picture of Clone Troopers resting against a wall after a foot patrol outside the wire.
The troopers in Callahan's images have to deal with the same snafus that their real-life counterparts are all too familiar with.
"Our radios never work," the caption to a portrait of a Clone Trooper reads. "They spent all this time training us, making us, and they couldn't issue us good comms."
In another picture, Callahan positioned Clone Troopers carrying a wounded comrade on a litter as dust and debris is blown all around them — a re-creation of images showing U.S. troops carrying a casualty as a helicopter is landing.
"A lot of 'Star Wars' fans, what they'll point out is that with the Clone Troopers or the Storm Troopers, they're trained to just fight, fight, fight," he said. "They're trained to just leave their fallen comrades behind and just charge into battle. By making a photograph like that, that's how I'm taking the real world and the fictitious world and morphing them together to tell my own story."
Callahan has also sought to use "Star Wars" action figures to re-create two iconic war images: Then-1st Sgt. Bradley Kasal being helped out of Fallujah's "Hell House" in 2004 and Sgt. William Bee narrowly being missed by a Taliban sniper's bullet in 2008.
"With those images in particular, the iconic ones, the re-creations … just kind of force you to reconcile with history," he said.
In December, Callahan got an unexpected email from Sgt. Bee, who had seen Callahan’s picture of a Clone Trooper taking cover as the impact of a sniper round kicked up debris near his head.
"He asked me if it was him and I was like, 'Yeah, that's you, man,' Callahan said. "He's like, 'I'm a big "Star Wars fan,"' and he really enjoyed what I was doing with the project."
Soon, Callahan hopes to re-create another iconic photo: The Associated Press picture showing Saigon's police chief shooting a Viet Cong prisoner in the head during the Tet Offensive.
"It's one of the most arresting images I've ever seen," Callahan said. "It stops you in your tracks and it forces you to explore things further. It's one of the few images that's changed public opinion of conflict.
"It really drove the discussion about the Vietnam War. It got people to think. And I think that's just something that would contribute to the project because in a way, that's what I'm doing with Galactic Warfighters: Forcing people to think about conflict in a different way."
The "Star Wars" movies are told from the perspectives of the heroes, so the movies force viewers to pick a side, Callahan said. But instead of the light and dark sides of the force, Callahan saw the Clone Troopers and Storm Troopers in shades of gray.
He was fascinated with how the latest "Star Wars" movie "The Force Awakens" spent nearly an hour humanizing a Storm Trooper named Finn, who turns against the First Order. That opens the door to the possibility that there are other troopers in the ranks who may not like their leaders.
"It suggests that there's much more than just: Oh, they're all super evil Storm Troopers and they just want to kill everybody," Callahan said. "They're humans."
Callahan knows that he does not have the final say on what people take away from his images, but he hopes they get an appreciation for the life that service members lead.
"By telling these stories in the framework of the 'Star Wars' universe, it might ... inspire them to think about how wars are fought and what men and women in the service go through and the stories that they have to tell through the Clone Troopers or the Storm Troopers that I photograph," he said.