Mon September 19, 2016
Prep Baseball Report recently announced its support of Operation Hawkeye: Strike Force, a charitable effort to support the families of fallen special operations members in the U.S. Military. Below is the story of how it all began. To learn more about helping this cause, please click here.
By Nathan Rode
Will Thomas is a senior right-hander at Gonzaga College HS in Washington, D.C. He’s a resident of McLean, VA, the same town that is home to the Central Intelligence Agency and across the Potomac River from the nucleus of the United States. As of five years ago, he had no connection to the military. That changed in August 2011. Even though he has no familial ties, he’s very much connected now and has become known for his charitable work for families of fallen special operations members.
Early in the morning of Aug. 6, 2011, a pair of Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters were on a mission in Afghanistan. One of them, with call sign Extortion 17, was shot down by Taliban fighters. All 38 passengers on board were killed, making it the largest loss of American lives in a single incident in the Afghanistan campaign.
A seventh grader at the time, Thomas heard about it on the news and talked about the tragedy with his family. The 12-year-old kid, with no military connection, wanted to do something.
“I knew as much as the average kid, that there were these guys somewhere in the world doing something pretty amazing that enabled me to live the pretty great life that I live,” he said. “I didn’t really understand the full significance, but I saw all the news stories and talked to my parents about it and realized it was a pretty big deal. It bothered me so I thought I’d do something small to sort of make a pretty bad situation a little bit better.”
Thomas played basketball and decided that he would shoot 1,000 baskets in his driveway for each of the 17 Navy SEALs that were on board the Chinook. Thomas’ dad, Bill, said he would give him a penny for each of those 17,000 and he could donate the $170 to a charity the SEALs had identified as their cause.
That was the birth of Operation Hawkeye. Initially, it was supposed to be a one-weekend endeavor according to Thomas, but he quickly realized it was worthy of more time. In 2013, the cause was expanded to honor special operations members from all military branches. This summer, Operation Hawkeye: Strike Force shifted the campaign into baseball, Thomas’ main sport.
Gonzaga is widely known as a basketball powerhouse and Thomas focused his efforts on baseball when high school began, but he kept shooting the baskets.
“For the longest time, it was one of those things where it was hard to create a marathon challenge around baseball, especially with me being a pitcher only,” Thomas said. “I guess you could field so many ground balls in a weekend or hit so many home runs off a tee or something.”
Thomas was inspired by Max Scherzer, who has fans pledge donations for each of his strikeouts. A member of the Stars Baseball 17U Red summer team, Thomas pitched the idea to his fellow arms.
“I saw that and thought, we have some good pitchers on our team, I’m good friends with them and we can probably get a bunch of strikeouts this summer at various events,” he said. “I’m pretty sure they’re not going to have any problem doing it. They’re not doing anything different, except for trying to strike out as many people as possible, which I think they’d be doing anyway.”
They were on board, no questions asked. So over the summer, Thomas and RHPs Owen Lamon (Oakton HS, VA), Ronnie Orie (Good Counsel HS, MD), Toma Shigaki-Than (Oakton HS, VA), Anthony Simonelli (Millbrook HS, VA) and Nick Stewart (Rock Ridge HS, VA) asked for pledges and tallied their strikeouts.
More Than Just Money
In the five years since its inception, Operation Hawkeye has afforded Thomas the opportunity to develop relationships with the people he wanted to support. Unbeknownst to Thomas, one of the SEALs was married to a McLean native. After burying her husband at Arlington National Cemetery, she picked up a newspaper and read about Thomas’ work. She showed up at his house unannounced and thanked him, saying that her husband would be proud and that there were others he could help.
Operation Hawkeye has raised more than $500,000 since 2011. For Thomas, the experience has been priceless.
“For me, the more meaningful things happen when I actually have personal interactions with these people,” he said. “I’ve been able to form pretty close relationships with some of the wives and family members and parents of people who lost their lives in that initial tragedy. That’s been the coolest thing for me, to have this idea of something I want to do, go out and do it and do it pretty well, and then have the reason I’m doing it come to me and say ‘You did such an awesome thing and it meant so much to me.’
“That’s definitely been the most rewarding aspect of it. It’s been amazing to see all my friends and family and people I don’t even know from across the country giving so much money. It’s cool to say I’ve raised so much money, but we made it pretty clear throughout the process that it’s all about the message and the money is sort of a bonus.”
One benefactor of Operation Hawkeye has been the Gold Star Teen Adventures program. Created by Lt. Col. Kent Solheim, the non-profit organization aims to provide support for the teenagers of fallen special operations members. Solheim was seriously wounded in combat in Iraq in 2007 and wondered at the time what it would mean for his children if he didn’t make it home. GSTA has four pillars—mentorship, leadership and character development, healing, and opportunity—and acts as a support, not a replacement, for those who have lost their fathers.
“It’s not that moms don’t do a wonderful job,” Solheim said. “The reality is that half the equation is gone. We try not to replace dad, but certainly do some things we know dad would have done with their kids.
“We really believe these kids have an adventure bone in their body. We try to give these kids opportunities we believe their fathers would have done for them. Whether it’s hunting, SCUBA diving, survival outdoors. Name the adventure, we do a lot of other ones as well.”
Solheim was awarded the Silver Star and remains an active duty member in the Army. He’s passionate about the special operations community and is thankful for the support Operation Hawkeye has provided.
“He’s really been a strong advocate for us year after year, seeking opportunities to raise funds for these kids to be able to go to these programs,” Solheim said. “This year, no pun intended, I think he hit a home run with what he’s doing now. He’s been able to generate a lot of support. With all the money he’s raised, that money goes to send a teen or multiple teens to these programs. Their support has been significant and certainly has been ongoing year after year.”
Up next for Thomas is the spring season and then college. Whether or not he continues his baseball career remains to be seen. He’s highly academic and has a lot of interest at the Division III level, but he’s hoping some Ivy League programs want to take a chance on him. Either way, you can be sure Operation Hawkeye’s mission will carry on.