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Walking across the stage Saturday to collect her University of Wisconsin Oshkosh diploma should have been the highlight of Deborah Wagner’s day.

It wasn’t.

On the other side of that stage something even more important to the West Bend woman was waiting: her son, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Wagner, had flown home from North Carolina to surprise her.

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“When mom called me and said she was going to graduate, I just knew I had to be here,” Justin said . “The two of us have really been in this together these past two years.”

Justin is third youngest of Deborah’s four children. He said he joined the Marines to help fund the college educations of Deborah and his two older siblings.

Justin said he spoke with his commanding officer, family members and University staff to help plan the surprise. Everyone was able to keep that secret from Deborah.

“I told her so many lies over the past few months,” Justin said. “I guess that’s what 19 years of practice will do for you.”

Deborah has been attending UW Oshkosh and on Saturday was awarded a degree in special education cross categorical. When her name was called, she stepped onto the stage, hugged her professor and then turned to walk back to her seat.

“He was just standing there,” Deborah said.

“She probably wanted to punch me,” chimed in Justin.

Justin gave his mom a big hug, lifting her into the air. He wasn’t wearing his military uniform because he didn’t want his mom to pick him out of the crowd and spoil the surprise.

It had been seven months since the two had seen each other.

“We have supported each other these past couple of years,” Deborah said. “I’m just in awe that he’s here.”

Justin will be home to help his mother celebrate and spend the holidays with family through Dec. 28. He has been in the Marines for 1 ½ years, stationed at several locations around the United States. He expects to be deployed overseas sometime soon.

Just when he’ll get home again is anybody’s guess.

But for now, it’s a graduation day that Deborah will never forget.

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