Lindsey Singleton got more than a diploma as she walked across the stage Thursday afternoon during Sickles High School's graduation.
She got a surprise visit from her sister, who had spent 10 months in Afghanistan before returning to her Army base in Texas last month.
Sara Singleton, 22, and a 2008 graduate of Sickles, had told her sister she wouldn't be able to come to the ceremony. Family and friends and lots of other people knew otherwise. Lindsey Singleton didn't have a clue and was admittedly bummed thinking her best friend wasn't going to make it.
For much of the commencement at the expo hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds, Sara Singleton sat in a room behind the stage, waiting for the special moment to arrive. She had stopped at a store on the way to buy red, white and blue flowers for the sister she considers a twin.
"We used to do everything together," Sara Singleton, a specialist for the Army who works in intelligence, said before the event began. "It's been hard not being able to see her."
Then, it became time to see her. As mom and dad and other relatives watched from the stands, the soldier pulled back a black curtain and got ready for the reunion in front of thousands of people.
Just a couple of seconds before her sister's name was called, Sara Singleton snuck onto the stage so she was standing there when Lindsey Singleton finished shaking Principal Jake Russell's hand. The graduate's mouth flew wide open in amazement at the presence of her sister-turned-soldier.
They hugged. They cried. And they hugged some more.
The 369 graduates who make up the 2012 Sickles class applauded and rose to their feet. So did nearly everyone in the crowd.
"I was shocked," the 18-year-old graduate said a few minutes later. "It blew me away. It means everything to me.
"I don't even need a graduation present," Lindsey Singleton added. "Just having her home is the best present ever."
Lindsey's brother, Cameron Cortez, a 1999 Sickles graduate, is also in the Army and served a stint in Iraq. Lindsey plans to join the Army as well, following in her siblings' footsteps. A fourth sibling, Candice Cason, graduated in 2001 from Sickles but did not join the military.
It took a concerted effort to keep the big secret over the last week.
"She tricked me. Everyone did," Lindsey Singleton said. "Everyone got me really good."
The sisters plan to enjoy some serious family time the next couple of weeks before the older one goes back to Texas. That means trips to the beach and a 57th birthday celebration today for their father, Tom.
"I miss family time. My sister is kind of my best friend," Lindsey Singleton said. "Every day she was in Afghanistan, I was worried. Having her here is like a weight lifted off my shoulders."