Logan, 3, and Justin Holbrook, 14, rode to dinner with the life-size cutout of their father, Lieutenant Colonel Randall Holbrook, a Maine National Guardsman from Hermon, Maine. (Bridget Brown/ Bangor Daily News via Associated Press)
Maine National Guard members in Iraq and Afghanistan are never far from the thoughts of their loved ones.
But now, thanks to a popular family-support program, they're even closer.
Welcome to the "Flat Daddy" and "Flat Mommy" phenomenon, in which life-size cutouts of deployed service members are given by the Maine National Guard to spouses, children, and relatives back home.
The Flat Daddies ride in cars, sit at the dinner table, visit the dentist, and even are brought to confession, according to their significant others on the home front.
"I prop him up in a chair, or sometimes put him on the couch and cover him up with a blanket," said Kay Judkins of Caribou, whose husband, Jim, is a minesweeper mechanic in Afghanistan. "The cat will curl up on the blanket, and it looks kind of weird. I've tricked several people by that. They think he's home again."
At the request of relatives, about 200 Flat Daddy and Flat Mommy photos have been enlarged and printed at the state National Guard headquarters in Augusta. The families cut out the photos, which show the Guard members from the waist up, and glue them to a $2 piece of foam board.
Sergeant First Class Barbara Claudel, the state family-support director who began the program, said the response from Guard families has been giddily enthusiastic.
"If there's something we can do to make it a little easier on the families, then that's our job and our responsibility. It brings them a little bit closer and might help them somewhere down the line," Claudel said yesterday.
"You know, this is my motto: `Deployment isn't a big thing, it's a million little things.' These families go through a lot."
While most families stay in touch with their guardsmen by e-mail, snapshots, and videophone, the cutouts are unusual.
"It's a novel approach," said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, a Washington-based lobbying group. "It's to remind the kids that this guy and this woman is still part of your life, that this is what they look like, and this is how big they are."
Claudel said she heard about the Flat Daddy idea while attending a national conference for the Guard. In Maine, the initiative began about eight months ago when Flat Daddies were offered as part of the deployment of B Company, Third Battalion, 172d Mountain Infantry, which is based in Brewer.
Now, when units are mobilized, the Guard organizes Flat Daddy parties, in which families can meet one another while receiving instructions on assembling the photos.
Judkins said the cutout has been a comfort since her husband was deployed in January.
"He goes everywhere with me. Every day he comes to work with me," said Judkins, who works in a dentist's office. "I just bought a new table from the Amish community, and he sits at the head of the table. Yes, he does."
In the car, her husband's image sits behind the driver's seat so Judkins can keep an eye on him. A third-grade class writes to him as their "adopted" guardsman. And Judkins even brought her husband's cutout -- which she calls Slim Jim, because he's not -- to confession at the local church.
When asked what her husband had to confess, Judkins laughed. "That's private," she said.
Jim Judkins had at least one precarious moment as a cutout. When cousins tried to stuff him into a suitcase to take on a cruise, they broke his neck. But instead of expensive surgery, all the cutout needed was a little duct tape, Judkins said.
Cindy Branscom of Hallowell, whose husband, Colonel John Branscom, is in Afghanistan, said spouses of service members in the 240th Engineer Group often bring their Flat Daddies to monthly support meetings and group barbecues. She said one spouse, Mary Holbrook of Hermon, has been seen in the company of her cutout husband, Lieutenant Colonel Randall Holbrook.
"Mary has taken Randy to different events," Branscom said.
But then again, that's almost expected.
"I think it's wonderful," Branscom said. "My Flat Daddy sits in my dining room all the time. He even went to Easter dinner with us at my family's house."