Boy Shooting Baskets Sparks Program To Honor Special Ops Veterans

America's athletes honoring America's heroes playing America's pastime.

The campaign slogan of Operation Hawkeye's Strike Force initiative simply and perfectly describes its goals. The national program was created in partnership with the Special Operation Warriors Foundation, Pledge It and the American Baseball Coaches Association to honor veterans from special operations units of the Armed Forces.

The project began with a 12-year-old boy named Will Thomas shooting baskets in his driveway with his father more than five years ago, and it went from being an opportunity for Thomas to earn $170 of his father's money to donate to the Navy SEAL Foundation, to bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars and raising an unprecedented amount of awareness for the cause.

In August 2011, out on that driveway at their home in McLean, Va., Bill Thomas shared with his son, Will, the news that earlier that month, 30 American troops were killed in Afghanistan when a rocket-propelled grenade fired by a Taliban insurgent downed their Chinook helicopter en route to a combat mission. Among those killed were 17 members of the Navy SEALs, five Naval Special Warfare personnel who support the SEALs and three Air Force Special Operations personnel. It was the largest single loss of life for Naval Special Warfare personnel since World War II.

Fifteen SEALs came from the Gold Squadron of the NSW Development Group, two SEALs from the West Coast team, five NSW support personnel, three U.S. Army reserve personnel, two U.S. Army personnel, two U.S. Air Force Pararescuemen and one Air Force controller. Addtionally seven Afghan National Army members, one Afghan civilian interpreter and one U.S. military working dog died.

"The whole thing goes back to when I was in seventh grade," Will Thomas said. "We're not a military family and I didn't have a bunch of exposure to the military or anything, but obviously everyone should have a general respect for the military just because of the knowledge of what they do.

"That grew as I learned more and more about a tragedy that occurred when I was 12, in 2011 over in Afghanistan. That tragedy was the initial starting point. (It) bothered me, so I tried to find a way to use sport, particularly basketball at the time, to raise money and to raise awareness for these special operations guys who have fallen in the line of duty, and that expanded over a few years."

Small Beginnings

The young athlete's original idea was to head back to the driveway over Labor Day weekend and shoot a thousand baskets for each of the Navy SEALs who died on that tragic day. His father made the first pledge to the cause, offering a penny per basket for Will to send to whatever charity the SEALs had identified in their wills.

"There were 17 who died, so that was a lot of baskets and a lot of time, and when word of that reached some of the families he was honoring, it became personal," Bill Thomas said. "That's what's sustained his commitment over time, is the truth of the realization that what he was doing is making a difference to these folks in a way that it otherwise wouldn't happen."

Over the course of that weekend, Will Thomas made a total of 20,317 baskets. Before even beginning middle school, he had raised more than $50,000. That might have been it for the unsung hero but for a chance encounter.

"Initially, I decided I was going to do a weekend shooting challenge and I didn't really think much about it beyond that," he said. "But it was that weekend that one of the widows of the guys from the initial tragedy in 2011, Victoria Kelsall (wife of SEAL Lt. Commander Jonas B. Kelsall), it wasn't until she stopped by my house unannounced and knocked on my door and introduced herself that made it a lot more personal.

Added Bill Thomas: "There have been several moments in this endeavor where I've realized that there was a reason it happened and a reason that Will did it. One of them was the very first weekend, on that Sunday. This Suburban pulls into our driveway and these two women get out and come down the hill and one looks at Will and asks, 'Are you Will?' He says yes and if you can imagine this, she says, 'I'm Victoria Kelsall, and my husband Jonas was the commander of the mission that was shot down in Afghanistan. I just wanted you to know that he really would have liked this, and I appreciate your doing it.'

"When she shows up and tells Will that it makes a difference to her, he knows it matters. Those are the things where Will sees that it matters to them, and that's what fuels his commitment."

Competition For A Cause

Since that life-altering moment, the project has grown immensely. Currently, the far-reaching endeavor is focused on Strike Force, rallying high school, college and travel teams to fundraise for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, an organization that provides for the surviving families of fallen soldiers as well as offering immediate financial assistance to those in special operations if they're severely injured in combat or training.

The program functions as a competition at the high school level throughout the month of April, with the hope that travel and college teams contribute all season long. In the first week of May, the team that raised the most money will be named a "national champion." A "community champion" will be named as the team that rallies the highest number of pledges. All teams that raise more than $1,000 will go onto an all-America team list, and one team randomly drawn from that list will be awarded a prize package, along with the two champions. The packages are worth more than $15,000 each and include a new pitching machine, radar gun, windscreen, bats, training equipment, apparel and more.

In the midst of what he calls his, "most ambitious endeavor yet," Will Thomas is also in his senior year at Gonzaga College High in Washington, D.C. The righthander is excited about the legacy he will leave behind as he moves into the next chapter of his life and onto the next level of programming for the cause he has become so close to.

"I've seen it around our school—kids and students finding a cause that they're passionate about and then doing something about it and not just saying, 'Wow, there are millions of hungry people in the world, there's no way I can solve that, so why bother?'" the 17-year-old said. "That was one thing I was faced with. There have been a ton of problems within the military community once someone passes away, and obviously that's a tragedy that really can't be made up for monetarily. Just because you can't fix the problem entirely doesn't mean you should do nothing.

"So in helping younger people like myself as I was in seventh grade, helping young people realize that if they want to do something, they shouldn't write themselves off just because it's something that they deem to be difficult or not possible, because I had those same worries and I came to realize that they weren't founded and really anything is possible."

Getting Involved

As personal as the cause has become for Will Thomas, another team already on board to participate is the baseball team at Melbourne (Fla.) Central Catholic.

Melbourne Central Catholic head coach Tom Dooley had a player in the mid-1990s named Jonathan Gifford, who later died while working as a special operations officer. Through Gifford's brother Matt, another former player, the program has worked with the Brothers in Arms organization, but they couldn't be more eager to join another initiative in Gifford's memory, supporting the cause and raising awareness.

"Obviously the cause is worthy of itself, but to have Jon be involved makes it so much more special to us," Dooley said. "You don't want to say no to these things. You want to be involved . . . What an angle (Will Thomas) took, using baseball to bring notice and to bring light to this, to raise money and to help families. You have so many programs at so many different levels, summer leagues, colleges, high schools that are involved in this, and this touches so many people. All of us know someone who needs assistance in some way involved with the military."

"The other thing it's probably going to do is light some sparks out there for other people to do other things," said Major Steven McLeary, executive director of the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. "It will bring attention to the foundation; a lot of folks have never heard of us . . . So I applaud the Thomas family. We're very thankful to be partnered with them. They are making a tremendous impact. They're reaching out and they're going to be touching the lives of these children and their brave families, who have had a tremendous loss, and know that other people care and honor the sacrifice of their loved one."

For more information on Strike Force, visit the website