Tuesday morning’s surprise reunion between the Air Force nurse and her twin daughters was carefully orchestrated. Planned with the help of a fast-food chain, a mob of media outlets raised the girls’ suspicions, and the family took questions and posed for photographs for more than an hour after they were reunited.

But amid the media frenzy inside the Gaithersburg KFC restaurant, there was still time for a private moment: Capt. Cherissa Jackson and 17-year-old Anita and Ashley Lee huddled together, backs to the cameras, in a tearful three-way hug. The room fell silent.

“It was like a total dream to finally see her and hug her,” Anita said. “We needed our mom back.”

The reunion was planned and paid for by KFC’s marketing team, company spokesman Rick Maynard said. KFC also flew in Jackson’s relatives from South Carolina and Florida, and the twins each received $20,000 checks to help fund their college educations.

Jackson, who was serving in Afghanistan, was chosen on the recommendation of Air Force public relations officials, Maynard said. As a single mother who has placed a strong emphasis on her daughters’ education, she offered a “compelling narrative,” he said.

Camera crews and reporters were asked to pretend that they were there to watch the girls talk with their mother on Skype and prepare gift packages for her platoon. But the twins, who weren’t expecting to see Jackson until Sunday, later said that they knew something was up before she walked in through the restaurant’s back door.

Anita jumped up, covering her mouth in shock. Ashley lifted her mother off the ground. “It still scared us a lot, in a good way,” Anita said.

Jackson and the girls’ guardians were in on the plan.

“You see all these reunions on TV, and I always knew I wanted one like that for my girls,” said Jackson, a critical-care nurse who has completed her fourth and final deployment. “But to actually be able to do that for them? That was just thrilling.”

The twins, who will graduate from Richard Montgomery High School this year, have not decided where they will attend college. But they said they have grown closer during their mother’s deployment — they went through cheerleading competitions, homecoming, their November birthdays and, for the first time, Christmas without her — and will probably attend the same school.

“You learn that it’s okay to cry,” Ashley said. “We just had to be there for the other one when they were sad.”

Two friends of the family took care of the girls in their Rockville home while their mother was away.

One of them, Stephen Slaughter, was responsible for driving lessons, taking the novice drivers on the roads.

“Well, they did better than I thought they would,” Slaughter said, laughing. “But there were times I think we all wished they had their mother back right then. They missed her.”

Jackson said she is excited to watch her daughters graduate this spring and to spend weekends with the girls watching movies and eating popcorn. Snuggling on the couch is also at the top of her agenda, she said.

“It’s the little stuff you miss when you’re gone,” Jackson said. “I’m just so glad to have my babies back.”