BEVERLY — Picking up your daughters from school can seem like a routine chore for most fathers.
But not if you've spent the last 14 months in northern Iraq, your only connection to your growing daughters via video phone calls.
U.S. Army Maj. Brandon Russell surprised both of his daughters by walking into their classrooms yesterday afternoon, eliciting hugs and giggles from his girls amid clicking cameras and misty-eyed onlookers.
"She's not normally this shy," Russell joked as his 3-year-old daughter, Hope, expressed herself only by wrapping her arms tightly around his neck as he squatted to greet her.
Russell, 35, had actually returned home to Beverly the night before but after his daughters had gone to sleep. In order to maintain the planned surprise, he stayed upstairs yesterday morning while his wife, Jeneil, got the girls off to school.
Hope is a pre-kindergarten student at the North Shore Christian School in North Beverly, while 6-year-old Rhema attends The Futures Clinic, a center for autistic children at the Cummings Center.
Russell, a native of Michigan, is a career military officer who attended West Point as a 17-year-old out of high school. He was in Iraq on an earlier tour when Rhema was born in 2004 and didn't see her until she was 6 months old.
This time around he had been away for 14 months, serving as a combat adviser to senior Iraqi security forces. Thanks to the wonders of Skype, the Internet video service, he could speak with and see his daughters two or three times a week.
"It's kind of weird because you're very informed but you're not there to do anything about it," he said. "My wife is the real hero in all this. She did this for 14 months by herself."
He did return home for a two-week leave in May, but that was precious little time to bond with his daughters.
At North Shore Christian School yesterday, Russell stayed back in the hallway until Hope's class filed into their room through a back door. When her teacher announced a "special guest," Russell walked in wearing his green fatigue uniform, brown boots and beret.
Hope seemed startled at first. Then she jumped up from her chair and ran over to her crouching father, grabbing him around the neck as he stood up. Russell asked her to give him a "dinosaur hug." He placed his beret on her head.
"We thank the Lord for keeping us safe on both ends," he said.
The family then hopped in their van and drove to The Futures Clinic to pick up Rhema. Like Hope, Rhema ran over to her father and he lifted her up in his arms. She giggled and squirmed and tugged at his ear.
That kind of response from Rhema, her mother said, was "precious."
"For so long, she would not pay attention to anyone in the room," she said. "She wouldn't greet us when we came in."
Now that they're back together again, the Russell family has nothing special planned. They were heading for a playground yesterday. On Monday, Rhema has a doctor's appointment. It's the kind of routine family life they've been missing.
"I've been waiting for a long time for this, especially for the girls to be with their dad again," Jeneil said. "We'll just do what we do."
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or by e-mail at pleighton@salem news.com.