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The next best thing to Dad

At her home on Tuesday, Madilynn Pawloski puts her Two-dimensional Daddy flat on the couch and wraps him in a red blanket. She tugs the plastic baby pacifier out of her mouth and puts it on his mouth.

He smiles. He is always smiling.

"I love my daddy," Madilynn says.

The Pawloskis — Chastity and her kids Madilynn and Jered — live in Wichita. The kids' real dad, Kansas National Guard Staff Sgt. Brandon Pawloski, lives on the other side of the world right now, serving in an engineering unit, building things. Except for a visit this summer, he'll be gone until December. The other Pawloskis, to endure missing him, created 2-D Daddy, a photo cutout.

That's the daddy that Madilynn laid on the couch, the one that she hugs and kisses every day, the one she takes with her into the bathroom to show what a big girl she is in potty training. 2-D Daddy is a nearly life-size photo cutout of the smiling and camo-uniformed Brandon Pawloski that the Pawloskis take with them everywhere.

"Daddy is in Afghanistan," Jered says to Madilynn now. Jered is 12. "Can you say Afghanistan?"

"Af-hanistan," Madilynn says.

This is Brandon's third war tour. He served his first two in Iraq.

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Chastity married Brandon Pawloski 13 years ago this June. "And I learned to forgive him even then for being a Nebraska Cornhusker football fan," she said.

There was much reason to overlook the Cornhusker thing and to love him to pieces, she says. For one thing he was born in Hastings, Neb., so loving Big Red can be somewhat forgiven. For another, he's a great husband — and a great father in person and as 2-D Daddy. She says that in the photo used in the cutout, Brandon Pawloski smiles as brightly as he smiles in real life.

He's a genuinely good person through and through, Chastity says. He joined the National Guard 15 years ago, she says, "because he genuinely wanted to help people, and he did help people."

In the Guard, for example, he helped keep the people of Augusta safe after the 1998 Halloween flood. He kept the shaken survivors of the Greensburg tornado safe after the 2007 tornado.

But along came the war tours, and off he went, separated from wife and kids off and on for years.

"It doesn't bother Brandon," his wife said. "He's proud of what he's doing. He thinks he's doing something important for his country."

"But this last tour was hard for both of us to think about," she said.

"We had Madilynn, and she's only 2, just old enough to love him, but not necessarily old enough to understand why he's disappeared from the house. We worried. We knew he'd be gone a long time, and maybe she'd forget him."

And so, a few months ago, she saw a Web site, flatdaddies.com, which offers military families the chance to make a Flat Daddy or a Flat Mommy. Other military families that she knows had used this service. She saved by doing the work herself; she printed out a big photo of Brandon. She glued it to cardboard and made her kids a 2-D daddy, a photo replica of the shaved head and the big shoulders of the man they love. The replica is so worn out from Madilynn hugging it that Chastity has to keep warning her:

"Stop yanking on him that way, or you'll pull your Daddy's head off."

2-D Daddy has kept them connected, Chastity said. Madilynn kisses him all the time. They took him sledding at Lake Afton in February. They took him out to a restaurant to celebrate Valentine's Day; other patrons, when they saw him, reached into their pockets and paid for their dinner.

They took him to his grandmother's house in Colorado and stuck him up in the group so that he could pose in the photo of all of Grandma's grandkids.

The other day, Chastity said, Madilynn took him outside and introduced him to neighbors, who do not speak English and were baffled at first about what the little girl was trying to tell them in her soft voice.

Then they saw her face and how it glowed as she held up the cutout of the smiling man in the Army uniform.

They heard the excitement in her tone as she touched his face with her 2-year-old hands.

They didn't need English to understand that.

They smiled.

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