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When Daddy is made of cardboard

By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / June 14, 2012
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Plymouth Library will screen “Flat Daddy” this Father’s Day weekend, a documentary film that takes its title from a practice that illustrates how hard it is for families to stay connected when a spouse and parent is serving overseas in America’s wars.

As the US military increasingly relied on Reservists and National Guard units to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many military families made life-size photographic cut-outs of their loved one serving overseas. Called “Flat Daddies,” the big cardboard pictures, often mounted on sticks, are held up in family photos, installed in chairs for family meals, and carried around by children at play.

Filmmakers Nara Garber and Betsy Nagler say 70 percent of American military families live in civilian communities rather than on military bases.

“And these communities,” say the New York-based filmmakers, who will attend Saturday’s screening and lead a discussion afterward, “often have little understanding of the invisible scars returning service members carry, or the complications that prolonged separation creates for the entire family.”

Though America’s post-Sept. 11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, some local fathers — along with mothers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, and other loved ones — will still be missing from Father’s Day family get-togethers. And while cheers and celebrations may greet returning units from war zones, veterans say too little attention is paid to their families.

“What is ignored is what the family at home was going through,” said Brian Sullivan of Plymouth, who served as a first lieutenant during the Vietnam War. “They don’t focus on the sacrifices, the hurt, the pain, and the worry and responsibility that the wife bears.”

While Sullivan was in Vietnam, his wife, Betsy, was nursing a newborn and taking care of three other children when an official-looking green vehicle parked in front of the house. “She saw that car and her heart dropped out of her chest,” Sullivan said. His wife thought it was a military vehicle come to bring her the bad news she was dreading to hear.

The wife of a Massachusetts National Guard lieutenant who recently served in Afghanistan and was gone from the household for 18 months, Gail O’Rourke of Plymouth characterized a spouse’s active deployment as “a huge invasion of family life.”

For O’Rourke, who works full time, the hardest part was managing the everyday needs of active teenagers, the rides to sports and other after-school activities — along with being the only adult in the house when things got tough. She lost power for five days after last year’s tropical storm. Another challenge is making do with less money because her husband’s income was reduced to half its ordinary level.

And then there’s the underlying issue that “Flat Daddy” focuses on — being alone in a world that forgets what you’re going through.

“Most of the time you won’t know there’s a military family in your neighborhood,” O’Rourke said last week. “When you find out, you have to do something.”

People do things at the start — offer rides, shovel snow — but they forget how long an absence lasts, she said. They say, “If you need anything, just call.” But the stresses of everyday life don’t allow for such “reach out” calls, she said.

“They won’t call,” O’Rourke said of stressed and too-busy military spouses. “Don’t wait to be asked.”

Garber and Nagler began making their film after reading a newspaper story on how many military families with absent members were using “flat” representations of missing members to ease the pain of repeated deployments. The images may be present when they share phone calls on Skype or read e-mails from an absent parent or share a family gathering with relatives.

The big pictures also help small children recognize a returning parent after an overseas deployment — the solution to a sad, long-noticed problem: Some children don’t recognize Daddy when he comes back home from the war.

“It becomes an important tool for them,” Nagler said last week.

The film follows the lives of four such families for a year to explore the impact of war on their lives.

“People feel their story has not been told, that their sacrifices are not understood or appreciated,” Garber said. “Raising children as a single parent and working can be a very lonely and isolating experience.”

Garber and Nagler also know from the responses to previous showings that “the film makes people want to talk,” Garber said.

Plymouth veterans agent Roxanne Whitbeck and reference librarian Bev Ness — the library and the veterans services departments collaborated on getting the word out on the film — said they are glad to see a film focusing on military families come to town.

In the era of the volunteer army, only 1 percent of Americans serve in the military, they noted. “We should support that,” Ness said. “If they didn’t volunteer, it could be your son or mine.”

Flat Daddies are no substitute for the real thing, of course. Back home since the recent return of his unit, the 181st Massachusetts National Guard, First Lieutenant Michael O’Rourke is adjusting to how much his teenage children have grown up during his absence, Gail O’Rourke said. Some of their interests have changed. Her husband is reconnecting, taking guitar lessons with one of his children, teaching another to drive.

O’Rourke said her family did have a large photographic cutout of her husband. “We had a lot of fun with it,” she said. She even brought it to school for one of the children’s events. But the fun has limits. Her daughter, now 16, was adamant that she not bring it to her school, O’Rourke said.

The film will be shown Saturday at 6:30 p.m., with refreshments beforehand beginning at 5:30. The showing is free, but reservations are required by going to or calling 508-830-4250.

Robert Knox can be reached at

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