Inspired by the tragic loss of life incurred in the August 2011 shootdown of Extortion 17 in Afghanistan, 12-year old Will Thomas began “Operation Hawkeye” (OHe) to raise money for veteran charities and to raise awareness for veterans’ issues. His method? Sports and a laptop. In just over three years, Will’s basketball 3-pointshooting marathons, daily online social media outreach, and collaborations with large and small enterprises mission teammates from across the country have raised several hundred thousands of dollars for veteran relief efforts, and OHe has exploded on the national scene. We definitely thought THAT was worth spreading the word about. With his parents’ permission, we interviewed him for Havok Journal. This article first appeared in The Havok Journal on 29 March 2015.
HJ: Havok Journal
WT: Will Thomas
HJ: What made you choose this particular group of SOF warriors to support?
WT: On August 6, 2011, the Taliban shot down a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan, call sign EXTORTION 17, carrying a Special Operations forces team of 30 American warriors and a military working dog, along with seven Afghan commandos and a civilian interpreter. I was moved by the courage of the fallen warriors and wanted to honor their memory. I also wanted to do something to support their families and loved ones. Basketball gave me a way to honor them and rally others that felt as I did. I decided to continue with this effort and expanded it to cover every branch of Special Operations because SOF Gold Star families and other members of their community told me we are making a positive difference.
HJ: Why did you choose basketball 3-pointers as the way to generate awareness?
WT: Basketball has always been fun for me, and my role on most of the teams that I’ve played on is as a shooting guard. When I was 12, I shot mid-range shots. But as I grew older, I turned to 3-pointers because of the degree of difficulty.
Most of the shooting challenges I do for OpHawkeye now involve making thousands of 3s in a day or over a 2-4 day period, which makes it both a test of endurance and skill. Last Labor Day weekend, for example, I made 5,250 3-pointers over approximately 50 hours. I took a lot more shots than that, of course, but only make around 50% of my shots from that distance.
HJ: How much money has been raised? What do you do with it?
WT: We have received somewhere between $175,000 – $225,000 in monetary donations, with another $200,000+ in in-kind donations of products, memorabilia, and services.
We are a team that works together to support SOF causes and nonprofits. There is no “Operation Hawkeye” foundation, so we work with mission teammate non-profits, including the Red Circle Foundation, Air Commando Association Foundation, That Others May Live Foundation, STATION Foundation, Gold Star Teen Adventures, SOF K9 Memorial Foundation, Navy SEAL Foundation, and others. We also raise funds to help OHe teammate charities through gear sales and other programs. Every penny donated goes into these nonprofit accounts.
I have never taken a cent, including for any costs involved with OHe, other than grants from organizations committed to our mission, which are directly used to further it. Nor do I personally accept any scholarship funds or monetary awards in connection with this effort. Instead, I redirect them to our nonprofit mission teammates. I also do not accept gifts or products of any kind. It is really important to me that the families and teammates of the fallen, and every person and business that supports the cause, know they can trust me.
Some of the operations are targeted for specific causes/organizations, in which case the funds go there directly. We have raised tens of thousands of dollars this way for groups such as Air Commando Association, the Erik Kristensen Memorial Scholarship Fund, Gold Star Teen Adventures, STATION Foundation, Glen Doherty Memorial Foundation, Chris Kyle Memorial Trust, Glen Doherty Family Trust, SOF K9 Memorial Foundation, and others.
HJ: Do you have any specific goals for your fundraising efforts?
WT: One of my personal goals is to raise $310,000 for the EXTORTION 17 community, basically $10k for each fallen warrior. Donations for this effort are accumulating in accounts designated for this purpose with the Red Circle Foundation, Navy SEAL Foundation, and Air Commando Association, among others. These organizations will work with the EXTORTION 17 Next of Kin to distribute services or other benefits, as appropriate. I’ve still got a lot of work to do, but will get there eventually. I am really hoping that our TEAM 31 AUCTION over this coming Veteran’s Day week can help close the gap on my goal. I am also reaching out weekly for donations, based on my Labor Day weekend shooting challenge, which basically serves as a year-round solicitation platform.
HJ: What kind of support have you gotten from veterans or private companies?
WT: As far as veterans are concerned, I try to avoid asking them to support the mission directly. After all, this mission is really about them, their teammates, and the Gold Star families. When I have a chance to meet current or former members of the community, I ask that they consider telling their teammates about OHe, so that they will know they have our support. I don’t have any personal connections in the community, so I count on those that are on the inside to let their teammates and their Gold Star families know about the mission.
This is also an area where I have been really blessed to have help from online platforms like SOFREP, and organizations like NDIA, AUSA, and others that let us set up a table at an event or place an ad to promote awareness. Finally, many, many members of the community have encouraged me and offered valuable advice, including the late Chris Kyle, Brandon Webb, Dom Raso, Craig Sawyer, and others. Honestly, one of the driving forces behind Operation Hawkeye is the support and encouragement that we get from veterans and those who currently serve in the military. We often receive emails, letters, and Facebook messages telling us that they appreciate what we are doing, and that is one of the reasons we have taken Operation Hawkeye as far as we have. Some of the Vets that have been pretty involved are listed here, http://www.ophawkeye.com/solid-operators/