TARPON SPRINGS — It's a scene that would bring him to tears, if he could open his eyes.
But until then, the women in Levi Eaves' mother's Bible study class have been spilling plenty of their own — not in sorrow, but for the way their community has come together to give hope and support to the 27-year-old Army Ranger, who sustained critical injuries last month while serving in Afghanistan.
More than 200 friends and strangers gathered on Tarpon Springs High School's football field at Sponger Stadium Thursday, despite threatening clouds and flashes of lightning. They only stayed for 20 minutes — just long enough for a drone camera to take an aerial photo of them spelling out the words “Levi Strong” with their maroon and white-clad bodies, say a group prayer and rush to their cars before the first rain drops fell.
Now, they will send the photographs to the family that is staying with their son, who is at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
“Every time he opens his eyes, he'll see it and know his community is praying and support him,” said Angela Miller, a friend of Levi's mother, Judy.
“It brings tears to my eyes. People who don't even know Eaves or his family have asked us how they can help, and it's a huge testament to our community. We worried about getting 100 people together to make this picture, and the response is absolutely overwhelming,” she said.
“Strong” is one of the first words that comes to mind when friends, neighbors and acquaintances talk about Levi. Honest, funny, loving and caring are a few others. The Eaves family is “who you would want next to you in a crisis,” and who would be the first to rally the troops to do the same thing for any other family in their situation, family friend Melody Williams said.
“I never had a son, but if I did I would be ecstatic if he were like Levi. It's like he was made to be the perfect son,” said Ron Long, the Eaves' neighbor for 15 years. “I'm older than his parents, but he treats me like a brother, an uncle, or someone his own age. He's not the type of person that would snub anyone, he could have a conversation with anyone.”
The Tarpon Springs High graduate and former wrestler always dreamed of going into the military, and as soon as he finished high school he made those dreams a reality. But on June 26, the young sergeant was in Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device detonated and caused traumatic injuries to his lower limbs, sending him to a hospital in Germany in a coma with fluid in his lungs and broken limbs.
Immediately, his parents, sister, London, 18, and brother, Gable, 21, headed overseas, obtaining passports with calls to the U.S. State Department. Levi was transferred to Walter Reed on July 4. When the family received the news about Levi's condition, his mother's Bible study group sprang into action - creating a Facebook page for updates on his progress. “The Latest on Levi,” has garnered 2,278 likes in less than two weeks. They started with “Levi Strong” bracelets, modeled after the popular rubber Livestrong bracelets, to raise money for the family, but the anthem quickly spread throughout the community.
Turning onto Tarpon Avenue from U.S. 19, drivers are greeted with a “Levi Strong” road sign put up by the county. Church signs, local businesses and homes are emblazoned with the slogan, from the Cody's Roadhouse where Levi worked, to T-shirts worn throughout the community. On a Tarpon Springs High trip to France, a student purchased a lock to put on the Locks of Love Bridge in Paris emblazoned with “Levi Strong.” A “Benefit Account for Sterling Levi Eaves” has been set up at Hancock Bank at 503 S. Pinellas Ave. for the family, and on Thursday police Capt. Jeff Young filled the football stadium's concession stand with snacks, toiletries and other donations collected at City Hall during the week. The goods will be donated to troops serving overseas.
But perhaps the most meaningful act will be the picture. On Wednesday, Levi became conscious for a short while and heard what his community has done. He smiled and got misty eyes, Miller said.
Levi is making progress, and every day is a miracle, Miller said. He can move both of his legs, and has started to open his eyes. His status was upgraded from seriously critical to critical, a slight but significant improvement, but because of his internal injuries he has yet to have any of his necessary surgeries.
London's boyfriend, Maurice Turner Jr., sent her a video of the community lining up in their letter formations. The video brought her to tears, and the entire family is “overwhelmed” by the outpouring, he said.