August 6, 2011 was the worst single loss-of-life day in the war in Afghanistan, and in the history of Naval Special Warfare. On that day, 30 American troops, many of which were special operations personnel, were shot down in their helicopter by the Taliban.
As the nation mourned, 12-year-old Will Thomas in McLean, Virginia began to think about the aftermath. What was going to happen to the families of the fallen? What kind of support system do Special Operations Forces (SOF) have back at home? He soon learned the sad truth – that few are aware of the sacrifices these heroes and their families make, and even fewer know how to provide the support they need.
Thomas soon found a way to honor the fallen and build support for their families by utilizing a passion he already had as a kid – basketball. That Labor Day weekend in 2011, Thomas’ father, Bill, promised his son a penny for every basket he made. While Thomas initially set a goal of 17,000, he ended up shooting 20,317 baskets in a 50-hour shooting period over the holiday weekend. More impressively, he raised $50,000 for the families of the Navy SEALs lost the month prior.
What began as a father-son pickup game turned into an Operation Hawkeye, a national effort incorporating tens of thousands of individuals, teams, and charitable organizations that brings together families and communities to address the needs of SOF and their loved ones. The mission is named “Hawkeye” after a Labrador retriever of the same name who is known as the loyal pet of Jon T. Tumilson of Iowa, one of the Navy SEALs killed in the attack. The name is also an acknowledgement of Will’s shooting marksmanship and the protagonist of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel, The Last of the Mohicans." As a grassroots mission, it organizes athletics-based events and partners with related causes such as the Red Circle Foundation, Air Commando Association Foundation, Gold Star Teen Adventures, Special Operations Memorial Foundation, Station Foundation, Navy SEAL Foundation, MARSOC Foundation and others.
Today, Operation Hawkeye has raised more than $300,000 and operates on a national level to raise awareness about SOF, inform the public about their sacrifices, and advance causes that support these heroes and their families. The mission has attracted businesses, local communities, and prominent media figures to participate in its goals and build involvement.
Thomas, now a Junior at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., picked up a basketball once again this Labor Day Weekend in honor of SOF. This year's RISE and FIRE marathon shooting challenge involved making 17,000 free throws in 170,000 seconds (or about 47 hours).
"I finished late last night, at 17,017," Thomas wrote on Operation Hawkeye's Facebook page. "Four days of honoring, and remembering, the EXTORTION 17 heroes."
"My hope is that by completing this Challenge, we can inspire at least 1,700 others to support this cause," he continued.
To be a part of RISE and FIRE 2015, Thomas encourages people to help Operation Hawkeye by 1) donating $17 to the event partner The All In All The Time Foundation, and 2) rallying 17 other people to do the same.
"Raising money is nice, but just making sure the families know we are with them is the most important thing," Thomas told Townhall.