FORT STEWART, Ga. -- Sgt. Andrew Ponton has been in Iraq since January, but if you had visited Florida's SeaWorld recently, you might have seen him sitting on a bench between his wife and son watching the dolphins perform. Or perhaps you noticed him, dressed in his Army fatigues, sunning on the beach at Tybee Island near Savannah, Ga.
A closer look, however, would reveal that it's not Ponton in the flesh. It is a life-size vinyl foam-board cutout that his family uses to keep him close even when he is far away.
Most of the time, he is leaning against the wall in his son's bedroom, standing guard over the 9-year-old as if he were there in person. It does not seem to matter to Zachary that his father can't answer when he talks to him or put his arms around him when he is frightened or lonely. For at least the next 11 months, "flat daddy" Ponton will have to suffice.
"He has this poster of his father that he talks to every night. It helps him remember that if he needs something, he can go to Dad," said Rebecka Lynn Ponton, 33, whose husband, a cannon crewmember in the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade, is on his third deployment to Iraq. "When he prays at night, he knows his dad is praying with him."
The popularity of flat daddies and flat mommies - replicas of service members who have gone to war - is spreading across military bases throughout the U.S. as families look for ways to keep their loved ones close.
They have become increasingly useful in helping young children remember parents who have been away for 12 to 15 months and in helping to maintain a semblance of normality at home.
Elaine Dumler, a military family consultant, and Cindy Sorenson, a former military wife, began marketing the flat daddy idea in 2003. Relying on donations, Dumler recently partnered with a printer to produce free posters for families. Since December, they have gotten more than 2,200 requests, she said.
The idea came from Sorenson, a resident of Bismarck, N.D., who created a flat daddy for her 19-month-old daughter, Sarah, three months after the child's father was deployed. She took a photo of her husband dressed in fatigues to a local print shop, where they blew it up and mounted it on a foam board.
The idea quickly spread. Last year, Master Sgt. Barbara Claudel, director of the Maine National Guard Family Program, distributed hundreds of the portraits to families in her unit.
Other companies offer similar products, and Dumler estimates that more than 6,000 have been produced across the country. Flatdaddies.com also produces the posters, made from a blown-up photograph and mounted on adhesive vinyl with a base, for about $40. They also offer instructions for making them at home.
"For children under the age of 5, this is very real," said Dumler, author of the military resource book I'm Already Home ... Again. "The figure is in the uniform they will have on when they come home, so it is a visual reinforcement for younger ones and the rest of the family."
The figures, however, are not for everyone, Dumler acknowledges. "I have gotten e-mails from people saying, 'It's not going to replace him.' Some people say it's harder and it hurts more to have it there every day. So you just have to be smart about how you use it."
For the Pontons, the cutout helped to ease the pain of deployment for Zachary, especially when he learned recently that his father's tour was extended from 12 months to 15 months. It also helps Andrew Ponton 38, not to feel left out of family activities, his wife said.
"I just got a card from my husband today saying, 'I can't wait to get home,'" she said, adding that he enjoys seeing photographs that include him. "One of his fondest memories is being there for Zachary and teaching him to ride a bike. So there are things he is missing and things Zach wants to share with his father."
The family has had two flat daddy posters. The first includes the entire family, and Zachary became so attached that he refused to allow his mother to cut out his father. So she got a second poster, with just the father's image.
Nothing can replace the real thing, Rebecka Ponton said, but until next April, when her husband is scheduled to come home, the cutout is a reliable stand-in.
"Dad went to the hospital with me when I had surgery because my husband could not come home," she said, referring to the flat daddy. "He has been on two roller coasters, which is good because my husband does not like roller coasters. Next month, he is going to take Amtrak home to Washington, D.C."
Dahleen Glanton writes for the Chicago Tribune.