Youth’s Dream To Support Fallen Special Forces Through Baseball Continues, Grows

Will Thomas was in seventh grade when he first started raising money to help support the families of fallen special forces operators. Using sports as a fundraising tool for his nonprofit, Operation Hawkeye, Thomas kept the effort going with his high school baseball team. And now that Thomas is in his first year at the University of Virginia, Operation Hawkeye’s latest venture, Strike Force, continues to grow.

The Operation Hawkeye Strike Force model has Thomas setting up an avenue for 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, based on the number of strike outs a team records.

In the second year of Strike Force, Thomas says they will target the high school level now and then move to colleges this spring and travel teams in the summer. Last year he had 12 teams participate in Strike Force. He also plans to partner with tournaments to raise funds at one or two tournaments across the country by setting up a special online site for participating teams.

“The families of fallen special operators would see dozens of teams play with their son or brother in mind,” he says.

As Thomas’ effort continues to gain traction, others have taken notice and now companies have started to get involved, he says. While he’s still working out the details with most of those interested, Marucci has shown an especially keen desire to get behind the effort.

“Marucci is proud to support Operation Hawkeye and its Strike Force initiative,” said Chad Vignes, Marucci communications manager. “We’re grateful for the sacrifices of our Special Operations Forces and honored to support their families and communities as part of this program.”

Combat Flip Flops has made an Operation Hawkeye patch available for sale to allow a team to add to a hat or jersey.

Thomas says he hopes the Strike Force effort continues to grow and that as long as he continues to receive positive feedback from families, he won’t quit.

“That is the biggest thing, people ask are you going to continue with this,” Thomas said. “My answer has always been that as long as families keep telling us that what we are doing means something to them and the civilian community seems to think it is a worthy cause, we are going to continue to do it.”

Over the years, Operation Hawkeye has benefited close to a dozen nonprofits. But the Special Operations Warrior Foundation was the perfect fit for Strike Force, Thomas said, because the group aids children who have lost a parent in the line of duty, even offering college scholarships.

“Since we are targeting high school and college-student athletes,” he said, “there is some nice symmetry to raise money for peers to go to college.”

Operation Hawkeye originated when Thomas was shooting hoops with his father. In August 2011, out on the driveway at their home in McLean, Va., Bill Thomas shared with his son the news that earlier that month that 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. Additionally, 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,” 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.”

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, 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.”

For those interested in giving to the foundation through Strike Force, visit Operation Hawkeye’s Pledge It.

Tim Newcomb covers gear and business for Baseball America. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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