– Teenager Will Thomas
On Aug. 6, 2011, U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) suffered the worst loss in its history when a CH-47 Chinook, call sign “Extortion 17,” flown by an Army Reserve and National Guard crew and containing Army personnel, Navy SEALs and Naval Special Warfare support personnel, Air Force Special Operations Command personnel, Afghan National Army commandos, a civilian Afghan interpreter, and a military working dog, was shot down by RPG fire in the Tangi Valley of Wardak province, Afghanistan. All 38 aboard the helicopter were killed in the shootdown. The helicopter was carrying a quick reaction force, part of a response to reinforce troops under fire.
Will Thomas was a 12-year-old boy playing basketball with his father, Bill, in the McLean, Va., driveway of their home when he heard the news. When he told his father he felt bad about it, his father replied, “So what are you going to do about it?” After some discussion, Will proposed to honor the fallen by shooting 17,000 baskets over the coming Labor Day weekend. His father pledged to donate a penny for each basket to the charity identified for the fallen. Then, only days before taking up his shooting challenge, Will learned of an extraordinary coincidence: The widow of one of the SEALs killed in the mission, Lt. Cmdr. Jonas B. Kelsall, had grown up in Will’s hometown of McLean. This was the origin of Operation Hawkeye, in which young Will shoots baskets in exchange for donations to the families of those killed in action. The name “Hawkeye” is in honor of Hawkeye, a Labrador retriever who became known nationwide as the immensely loyal pet of Jon T. Tumilson of Iowa, another Navy SEAL killed in the Aug. 6 action. The name is also a nod to Will’s shooting marksmanship and the protagonist of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans.
Initially, Thomas’ shooting goal was 17,000 baskets, and he surpassed it. He made 20,317 midrange baskets in a 50-hour shooting span over that Labor Day weekend in 2011, raising $50,000 for the families of the Navy SEALs lost on Aug. 6. His 2012 challenge, Rise and Fire, honored all the special operations forces (SOF) aboard the aircraft and called for Will to make 2,600 long-range three-point baskets; he sank 3,317 in 34 hours of shooting, raising tens of thousands more for SOF. Most recently, on Feb. 17, 2013, Will honored fallen U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle with a 17-hour challenge, making 2,017 three-point baskets in 15 hours and raising more than $19,000 for Kyle’s family through the Chris Kyle Memorial Trust.
Will harnesses a strong work ethic and the latest in social media to advance his mission. Operation Hawkeye has a robust Facebook platform (www.facebook.com/OperationHawkeye) as well as a stand-alone website (www.ophawkeyecom). Both these platforms contain information about the mission, related video and other media coverage, a library featuring works by mission team experts, a mail platform through which to express support for SOF families, gear offerings, a memorial to the fallen, and information on how to donate and offer other forms of support for the cause. The Facebook page features postings on mission developments, highlights ways to honor the fallen and/or support their families and related causes, and generally informs others about the nature of SOF service. As of this writing, the mission’s Facebook page followers number more than 28,000 and counting.
Operation Hawkeye is not a nonprofit charity, but financial donations are tax deductible and are distributed to appropriate charitable organizations such as the Navy SEAL Foundation, Brandon Webb’s Red Circle Foundation, America’s Mighty Warriors, the USSOCOM Care Coalition, and others. In 2012, the SEAL Legacy Foundation awarded Will Thomas the SEAL Unsung Hero Award at a ceremony that also honored businessman and philanthropist T. Boone Pickens.
Operation Hawkeye also engages key elements of the nation’s basketball community, ranging from youth and high school athletes and coaches to NBA teams and professionals, as well as organizations such as the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Thomas’ strong work ethic has resulted in partnerships with companies such as Nike. He created a youth-focused paracord bracelet initiative and will soon launch a national free throw challenge through which individuals and teams across the United States can join with him to raise awareness and funds for SOF.
Contributors can also purchase an Operation Hawkeye patch for $5, and all proceeds go to support the SEAL families. The three-color PVC patch with Velcro® back features the Operation Hawkeye logo – a stylized image of a boy shooting a basket, inspired by Will’s profile. Additional information can be seen at www.uspatriottactical.com/operation-hawkeye-patch.html. Will’s father said, “The end-goal is really nothing more – or less – than to show members of the SOF community that we care about them and are grateful for their service and sacrifice, and all are encouraged to express that sentiment in a manner that suits them best.”
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2013-2014 Edition.