With their father serving in Iraq, twins Marina and Bettina Thomas intended to film their graduation to share with him later. But a knock on the door Friday changed their plans.
ST. PETERSBURG - Friday's front-door knock came at noon, brisk as military cadence.
Sitting at the kitchen table, twin 17-year-old sisters Marina and Bettina Thomas threw puzzled scowls. No visitors were expected.
Bettina squinted through the peephole, spying nothing but the bright red of a T-shirt. Curious, she hauled open the door.
And stood as if struck.
Marina, close behind, spoke first.
"Dad . . . "
Army sergeant and gun-truck driver Robert Charles Thomas, home briefly from the war in Iraq just two weeks after being wounded in an ambush, was on a special mission: to see his daughters graduate from high school.
He carried off a grand surprise, because Bettina and Marina, who had planned a surprise of their own, had no idea.
Thomas stepped forward and hugged them like a man pulling a vision close. He buried his head in their hair.
For 10, 20, 30 seconds, the three stood close. No one spoke. A sniffle drifted out of the group embrace. For one short minute, all the trouble in the world dissolved and all its love beamed into the front room of a house in west St. Petersburg.
At last, her eyes shining, Bettina stepped back.
"Why are you home?" she asked her dad.
"I wanted to come for the graduation," he said.
A warrior who joined the Army before getting his own diploma, Thomas has dreamed of seeing his daughters win theirs.
He touched a white graduation gown lying on a sofa, running his fingers over it gently.
"I'll be honest, when my first sergeant told me it looked like they could get me home, I was sitting in the mess hall, I had tears coming out of my eyes," Thomas said.
Bettina and Marina graduate May 18 from Boca Ciega High School. Their dad returns to Iraq May 22.
A scrappy kid from Philadelphia, Thomas joined the Army in 1979 at age 18. He became a parachutist, a Ranger and a Green Beret, spending eight active duty years and eight more in the reserves. During 12 years in St. Petersburg, he ran a dump truck company and worked with contractors.
Education has always topped his list of values.
"He never grounded us if we got bad grades," Marina said. "He'd just ask us if we'd tried hard."
In April 2003, Thomas, who is now 42, rejoined the reserves. In December, his 498th Transportation Company, based in Mobile, Ala., moved out, headed for 18 months in Iraq.
It was jarring for the girls, who live with their mother, Brigitta Thomas. They worried. They quit watching television news.
But they found resolve, maintained high grades and stayed on course to graduate with distinction from Boca Ciega's medical magnet program.
Both were athletic trainers, between them covering virtually every sport the school offers, making sure the athletes worked out correctly and ate properly. When the athletes got pulls and strains, the girls fixed the hurts. The wrestling team called her "Mom," Marina said.
For holding up through adversity, the girls won Boca Ciega's Spirit Award at the awards assembly Thursday night.
It has been given annually since 1987 by the school's alumni association.
Principal John Leanes said he recommended the girls. "The courage they exhibited through the year and maintaining their grades and spirit, I thought it should be something to recognize," Leanes said.
The school also planned to videotape the graduation ceremony and send it to Thomas. The girls' Spirit Award was supposed to be a surprise for him.
The sergeant already was planning his own surprise, although the school didn't know it.
Then Thomas had a close call on April 25. While on supply convoy escort near Samarra, his truck was ambushed. A bomb went off.
"We took gunfire and returned gunfire," Thomas said. Shrapnel hit him in the left arm and on the left side of his face.
Medics treated him and he quickly returned to his post near Tikrit. Before he was hit, he had gotten permission to come home for the graduation but hadn't told the twins. Nothing was going to change that, Thomas said.
He got in Thursday night after traveling since Tuesday. His wife, Valerie Thomas, knew he was coming. So did Brigitta Thomas.
Everyone managed to keep the secret from the twins and from Thomas's other two children, Cole, 3, and Michael, 20.
"I was just going to go over to the school and ask to see my daughters," Thomas said.
But school was not in session Friday. So Thomas showed up at the girls' house. After their shocked subsided, the twins noticed their dad looked thinner than he did a few months ago. He had lost 22 pounds in Iraq, so they quickly settled on a family remedy.
"We're going to go get a pizza," Thomas said. And they did, a cheese pizza at Italia Mia. "That's all I wanted."