VIRGINIA BEACH — It was the middle of the night when Richard Fitzgerald received an email from Afghanistan.
From the bedroom of his Dam Neck home on June 24, Fitzgerald read what seemed like a light-hearted message from his son, Army Staff Sgt. Levi Eaves.
The 28-year-old wrote about the 116 degree heat, stand-pressing 200 pounds, and looking forward to returning home in mid-November.
The email signed off with "I love you."
"The 'I love you' at the end of the email bugged me in a way," Fitzgerald said. "He doesn't usually end his messages like that. It just gave me a funny feeling."
The following morning, Fitzgerald decided to break from his typical daily regimen of exercising at the gym. In a chilling twist of fate, it was a good thing he was home on this particular morning.
At about 5 a.m, he received a call from Eaves' mom, who lives in Florida.
"She never calls that early. I knew something was wrong before I picked up the phone," he said. "I knew at that very moment why I did not go to the gym that morning."
He describes the call as a blur. There was lots of crying, and he can't quite recall the exact words that were spoken. He just remembers feeling completely powerless after being told that his son was critically injured by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
Fitzgerald was in the Marine Corps and vividly remembers seeing fellow marines being injured. But when it's your son, it's completely different.
"You can't hear it or touch it. You feel so useless," he said.
He prayed and prayed.
To maintain his sanity, he continued to work diligently at his sales job at SteelMaster on Laskin Road.
Anthony Bueno, president of SteelMaster, recalled retrieving the voice-mail from Fitzgerald detailing the terrifying news.
"It was heartwarming, horrifying, and touching all at the same time," Bueno said.
In the weeks that followed, SteelMaster employees connected to the "Latest on Levi" Facebook page and joined the "Levi Strong" movement to support Fitzgerald's son.
They were touched by the outpouring of heartfelt and creative postings that displayed the "Levi Strong" message. One example spelled the message out with shells on the beach, and another showed a banner hanging from a bridge in Annapolis, Md.
On July 29, there was a presidential post. President Barack Obama was photographed visiting Eaves at the Bethesda Hospital.
"How do you go from a coma to President Obama?" said Fitzgerald. "Things like this don't happen in my world."
He takes great joy in this photo as well as the little things, such as watching his son eat a double cheeseburger.
On Aug. 1, SteelMaster employees held their own event to support Eaves and his dad, presenting a $1,000 check while wearing red, white and blue.
"The company wants the Hampton Roads community to rally around this cause," said Michelle Wickum, director of marketing.
Fitzgerald pointed to the tattoo that he had imprinted on his arm that reads "Levi strong."
"I got this tattoo because I am in it for the long haul for his recovery. Life isn't perfect," he said. "The last thing I told my son was that he was my hero."
Lee Belote, firstname.lastname@example.org