It is one of the hardest things about being a military family. How to cope when a husband and father, or wife and mother, is posted abroad, especially to combat zones such as Iraq or Afghanistan. Now the US army has come up with a bizarre solution: Flat Daddy and Flat Mommy.
Many military units can provide families with a life-size cardboard cutout of their overseas warrior. The family can then take that figure to parties, put it in the passenger seat of their car, take it to bed or do whatever it is that families want to with a replica of their loved one.
Named after Flat Stanley, a children's book character who was squashed flat, the cutouts have been a surprise hit since they were introduced. In Maine alone, the state's National Guard has given out more than 200 Flat Soldiers since January.
The scheme began in North Dakota when one army wife, Cindy Sorenson, made up a life-size photograph of her former husband for their daughter, after he was sent to Iraq.
The model helped the girl to cope with missing her father and Sorenson mentioned it to a motivational speaker, Elaine Dumler, who included it in a book.
From there the idea took off and has been adopted by units across the US. They can be found going on dates with their wives in Alaska and having dinner with their families in Colorado.
Experts believe that the cutouts are a useful psychological device, especially for children, that helps cope with the stress of long absences.
It allows the family to genuinely feel the missing person is still involved in day-to-day life.
"Families miss people so much when they are gone that they try to bring their soldier everywhere," said Barbara Claudel, director of the Maine National Guard's family unit.