By Eli Bernstein
Fourteen-year-old Will Thomas has raised more than $100,000 for U.S. veterans. The funds are used to provide support for families of soldiers lost in action, medical and living expenses for veterans, and memorials to those who have fallen in the line of duty. But to Will, the desire to help is about a lot more than just money.
Will's real mission is to show appreciation and support for U.S. special-operations forces — a select class of elite soldiers from the Army, Navy, and Air Force that is frequently asked to take on dangerous yet highly important assignments.
To understand why Will chose this cause, you have to flash back to 2011. Back then, Will was your average 12-year-old boy living in McLean, Virginia, a suburb of Washington D.C. Will loved sports. He was a middle infielder and pitcher in baseball and a shooting guard in basketball.
In August 2011, Will and his family were at a baseball tournament in New York when news broke of a tragedy in Afghanistan. A special-operations Chinook helicopter named Extortion 17 was shot down and had crashed. Thirty U.S. soldiers died. It was, and still is, the largest American loss of life in a single day during the war in Afghanistan.
One evening soon after, Will was shooting hoops in the driveway with his father, Bill. As they talked about the crash, Will told his dad that he wished there was some way he could help raise awareness about these soldiers and what had happened. Will didn't personally know any of the people who died, but he was struck by the fact that all of these soldiers were lost while serving their country. "At first I couldn't process how big of a deal it was," remembers Will. "But when I looked into the details, I realized that it was a big deal."
Suddenly, Will had an idea. Why not honor the servicemen by doing something that he loved? "I thought it would be original and easy if I started shooting baskets for the soldiers," says Will. "I could ask people to donate money for each basket I sank. As my dad and I kept talking about it, the idea sounded better and better."
Will's first donation came from his father, who pledged a penny for every basket made. Soon word spread through the community and to states as far away as Michigan. Most of the pledges were modest, $5 here and $10 there. But collectively, Will realized that he could raise a lot of money — if he could sink a whole lot of baskets.
That Labor Day weekend, Will set up on his driveway to complete his end of the deal. It didn't take long to sink the first basket. Then came the next. And the next. Friends stopped by. Local reporters who had heard about the challenge were there too.
Through it all, Will never stopped hoisting the ball. For stretches in the evening, it was just him and his dad, who kept track of each made shot with a hand-held clicker.
By Monday afternoon, Will had reached his goal of 17,000 baskets made. He was tired but he decided to keep going. Eventually he was stroking the ball in falling rain. When he finally stopped, the tally was 20,000 baskets made and $50,000 raised — all from shooting hoops in the driveway.
Will and his family were proud of what had been accomplished. But no one was more moved than the families of the soldiers. "You don't see a lot of good like this very often," says Elizabeth Jennings, whose sister Victoria lost her husband, Jonas, in the helicopter crash. Elizabeth and Victoria watched Will shoot baskets that weekend in McLean.
"I know that a lot of the soldiers had the same traits that Will has," says Elizabeth. "They also put others before themselves. They were also selfless and went beyond what others think they're capable of."
The response to Will's fund-raising challenge was huge. He received the Unsung Hero Award from the Navy SEAL Legacy Foundation. He was also written about in a local newspaper and featured on the evening news. The attention was nice, but Will always made sure that the focus was on the special-operations soldiers and their families. He also decided to continue planning more basketball challenges to keep the momentum going. He named his mission Operation Hawkeye. The name is a reference to his skills as a shooter. In addition, one of the SEALs lost in the crash had a dog named Hawkeye who was so loyal, he refused to leave his master's casket.
Since 2011, Will has completed two more basketball shooting challenges, raising a total of more than $100,000 for veterans of special-operations forces and for the families of fallen soldiers. The Operation Hawkeye page on Facebook has more than 31,000 likes and the number rises every day.
Even the upper levels of basketball have started to learn about Operation Hawkeye and Will's mission. College coaches like Roy Williams of North Carolina and Bill Self of Kansas support the cause and so have a number of NBA teams. When Will learned that a four-year-old boy in California named Hunter Harvell lost his father in the crash, he contacted the Los Angeles Lakers to see if they would be willing to host Hunter and his mom, Krista, at a game. The Lakers agreed and delivered more than just tickets. "Hunter got to go on the floor and give high fives to the players," says Krista.
Will knows that a game can never make up for a family's loss. But even though it was a small act of kindness, the Harvells will never forget it either. "It's a blessing to see how many good people are out there, and how many people really do care," says Krista. "That's the best thing that's come out of this whole situation, meeting people like Will who really care and just want to do something to help."
Today, Operation Hawkeye has grown to the point that anyone can find a way to help — even SPORTS ILLUSTRATED KIDS readers (see the sidebar, right). Through the Operation Hawkeye page on Facebook and the Athletes Give Back page on sikids.com, families can find out how to pledge money to Will's next basketball challenge. The Facebook page also allows people to leave messages of support and appreciation to veterans and their families.
Basketball players and teams may also participate in the E17 Free Throw Shooting Challenge, at which they can pledge to shoot 1,700 or 17,000 shots from the free throw line in exchange for having their names posted on an Operation Hawkeye website that's currently being built.
Having different ways to help Operation Hawkeye is important to Will because it spreads the word to thousands of people — not just the ones who are able to donate money. That awareness is critical because it ensures that these soldiers will never be forgotten.
"I had barely heard of Navy SEALs or special operations before 2011," says Will. "It wasn't until a tragedy struck that I realized how much of a sacrifice they're making for our country and how important they are. I want to show our soldiers that if they are over in Afghanistan thinking that we don't care about them, they're wrong. We do."
Anyone Can Make a Difference
Not every 12-year-old starts a movement like Operation Hawkeye. But the one who did doesn't think he's all that special. He's still a normal kid who hangs out with his friends and idolizes NBA stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant. And next year, Will is eager to see if he can make his high school basketball team. Does sinking close to 26,000 baskets improve your skills? "It couldn't hurt," says Will with a smile.
Whatever the future holds, Will is committed to keeping Operation Hawkeye a part of his life — a part that he never imagined becoming as big as it has or affecting so many people across the country.
If you're looking for Will this Labor Day weekend, you know where to find him. On his driveway in McLean, working hard at another basketball shooting challenge. Shooting baskets is something kids do every day, but Will Thomas turned something ordinary into something powerful. He knows other kids can do the same thing, for his cause or any other.
"Maybe there's something that you think is worth doing, but you don't want to try. Maybe you think it will be too much work," says Will. "Don't think that, because if you don't do something to help, there's always the chance that no one will. Operation Hawkeye gave me something worthwhile, and you can't have too much of that."
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Getting involved with Operation Hawkeye is easy. Simply go to the Operation Hawkeye Facebook page, "Like" the page or leave a message of support for special-operations forces members and their families. You can go to the "Mail" section of the page and send messages directly to the families of the service members who passed away on Extortion 17. Your family can also pledge donations through the page. All money received by Operation Hawkeye goes to the Red Circle Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides funding and support for veterans of special-operations forces, their families, and loved ones of those who have fallen in the line of duty. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED KIDS is also teaming up with Operation Hawkeye to raise donations and awareness.