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Dad goes to war, stand-in stays

Photo replicas, known as "flat daddies," help keep family bonds alive.

By BRADY DENNIS
Published February 19, 2007


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photo
[AP Photo]
Maine residents Logan Holbrook, left, 5, and his brother Justin, 14, flank their flat daddy of their father, Lt. Col. Randall Holbrook.

After her husband left for Afghanistan in January 2005, Ardis Ligman headed to Walgreen's.

She enlarged a photo of him in uniform, bought a thick acrylic board and pasted his likeness on it. She wanted her 10-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, to see her father's face and feel his presence while he fought a war half a world away.

She needed a stand-in.

"He went everywhere," Ligman, of Spring Hill, said of the two-dimensional version of her husband. "He went to Chicago and D.C. and Missouri. He went to Disney, to Busch Gardens. He went to the beach. He went to dinner.

"Anywhere we went, he went with us."

While Staff Sgt. Paul Ligman served with his Crystal River-based military police unit, his cardboard twin showed up in family pictures and sat quietly in Kaitlyn's room on nights when she just needed to talk.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan roll on, more and more military families have embraced the concept of the "flat daddy," an often life-sized cutout of a loved one who has been deployed overseas.

From Alaska to Alabama, flat daddies - not to mention flat mommies, flat brothers, flat daughters and so on - have become part of the military family landscape.

To outsiders, the concept might seem a shade bizarre. But to those dealing with the difficulties of deployment, it makes perfect sense.

"Nothing will be like being there, but you've got to be able to keep these connections as tight and as strong as possible," said Elaine Dumler, a Colorado motivational speaker who travels the country and regularly encourages families to use flat daddies.

"If this makes a child feel secure, if a wife feels better having it around, what ... is wrong with that?"

Dumler first heard of the idea in 2003, as she was preparing a book for military families on dealing with deployments. She learned that a mother in South Dakota had modeled the concept on the children's book Flat Stanley, where the main character is flattened and can travel by envelope anywhere in the world.

Dumler included it in her book and has applied for a trademark. The idea spread.

By late 2005, Master Sgt. Barbara Claudel, the state family program director for the Maine National Guard, decided to offer flat daddies to families for free.

So far, the guard has handed out about 250.

"It just took off," Claudel said. "It's just one of the things we use to help the families, to make them feel special, to make them feel connected. You've got to really get creative when you're deploying. No one can understand unless you've lived through that."

Flat daddies have attended weddings and funerals. They have gone to baseball games and birthday parties, dance recitals and swimming lessons. They've sat through Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas mornings by the tree. Along the way, the idea picked up steam, as well as supporters.

An Ohio company, SFC Graphics, began offering free flat daddies to immediate family members of deployed soldiers through a Web site, www.flatdaddies.com. Friends and other family members can buy one for $40. A Sarasota company, LexJet Corp., joined the effort, providing raw materials.

SFC's Eric Crockett said he had filled orders from Florida, California, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Utah and a handful of other states. Many times, he said, families are searching for a way to help young children recognize the fathers they've never met or won't remember after a long deployment.

"A lot happens in a year," Crockett said. "This just gives them some sort of visual cue, so when Dad gets off the plane, the kid knows who he is. That's pretty compelling."

Compelling enough that Dawn Drew, of Orange City, recently ordered a flat daddy of her own. It arrived in the mail Feb. 5.

Her husband, Army National Guard Sgt. David Drew, is working his way through a second deployment to Iraq and won't return before autumn.

He missed the birth of their youngest son, Logan, now 2. And he has missed almost half of 4-year-old Matthew's life.

Dawn Drew, 27, hopes that a cardboard version will help fill the stands at Matthew's soccer games. She hopes it will give her a concrete answer when Logan asks, yet again: "Who's daddy?"

"That'll give them something to hold onto. Anything to give them comfort, to not forget who he is," Drew said. "It's bad enough that Daddy's not tucking them into bed."

Brady Dennis can be reached at 813 226-3386 or dennis@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 19, 2007, 07:16:11]


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