Will Thomas spent 43 hours over Labor Day weekend working on his 3-point shot. He completed 5,250 baskets. The Gonzaga College High (Washington, D.C.) sophomore wasn’t preparing for tryouts for the upcoming basketball season, however.
Thomas was commemorating the five Army Reserve and National Guard members aboard a Chinook helicopter for operation Extortion 17, which consisted of 30 U.S. military personnel who were shot down by the Taliban in Afghanistan on August 6, 2011.
Though Thomas was not personally affected, something urged him to honor the victims of what was considered the largest single-day loss of life in the history of U.S. Naval Special Warfare for Operation Enduring Freedom.
“I thought about all the kids who lost their dads or wives who lost their husbands,” Thomas said. “If there was any way I could help, I knew I should try.
“If you feel deeply about something, act on it.”
Thomas first thought he could use his court skills to help make a difference when he was 12-years-old, playing a game of one-on-one against his father, Bill Thomas, in the family’s driveway.
So Labor Day weekend three years ago he challenged himself to complete 17,000 baskets — 1,000 for each of the 17 fallen Navy SEALs. His father pledged to donate a penny for every basket his son made.
Though Thomas — who played on Gonzaga’s junior varsity baseball team last season and is a member of STARS Red 15U, a national baseball travel team — played basketball competitively throughout his childhood, he hadn’t felt more demand from his body than that weekend, when his legs and arms ached so much that he had to adjust his shooting form as he repeatedly threw shots for 50 hours in total. He completed more than 20,000 mid-range baskets.
Thomas was compelled to continue the individual basketball shooting challenge on a larger scale after Victoria Kelsall, widow of fallen Navy SEAL Jonas Kelsall, showed up in his driveway and encouraged his initiative.
“When she came by it put things into perspective of how small the world is and how many people we can influence,” Thomas said.
Thomas founded Operation Hawkeye, named after “Hawkeye”, a dog that belonged to Navy SEAL Jon Tumilson, one of the 30 fallen soldiers, with the intent to get the community involved through basketball shooting challenges. Through Operation Hawkeye, Thomas aims to honor the sacrifices of fallen Special Operations forces (SOF) and rally emotional and financial support for their families.
“As a commander who has lost guys on the battlefield, that care for the families afterward is so important,” said Lt. Col. Chris Larkin, who retired from the Air Force last April. “What he’s done is truly remarkable.”
Thomas named his original individual shooting challenge “RISE and FIRE”, which has been held annually over Labor Day weekend for the past three years. He also created E17, a national free throw shooting fundraiser that runs from July 4 through Dec. 31, during which individual or teams shoot free throws and can also fundraise for Special Operations charities using an online peer-to-pear fundraising platform. Robert Guenther, a sophomore at George C Marshall High (Church, Va.), and his basketball teammates completed 15,000 free throws in support of Operation Hawkeye.
“It helps us remember that there are many people who protect and defend our country all over the world every day,” Guenther said. “It’s important to share their story and recognize the men and women who serve.”
Thomas devised K920, a shooting challenge to fundraise for exhibits at the Airborne and Special Operations Museum and the John Douangdara Memorial War Dog Park that honors the SOF K-9 community, including fallen handlers and military working dogs.
He continues to engage using social media. The Operation Hawkeye Facebook page has more than 100,000 “Likes”.
“The added awareness and education to the public for what our Special Operations forces are doing on the battlefield, the sacrifices they’re making and the sacrifices of the families is invaluable,” Larkin said.
Thomas has helped raise more than $125,000 in monetary donations and an additional $200,000 through in-kind goods and services, including sports memorabilia from college coaches and NBA teams and athletes.
“To think that a little idea ended up influencing people across the country to take an interest in Special Operations and in those who died serving us is really crazy,” Thomas said. “It been great to see, and we hope to see more of it.”
Thomas aims to raise $310,000, which will be allocated, in part, by distributing grants throughout the SOF community. And he hopes to sustain Operation Hawkeye for years to come.
“He saw a need and made an incredible difference to recognize the sacrifices made by individuals and their families and provide support,” Larkin said. “He is leading by example for today’s youth,” Larkin said.