BANGOR, Maine — Why was it so important for country superstar Brad Paisley to find out the names of the soldiers behind the life-size cardboard likenesses he signed during Sunday night’s concert on the Bangor Waterfront?
“It got to me when I saw these cardboard cutouts — I guess they call them ‘Flat Daddies.’ It’s just such a reminder of the sacrifices that [these families] make,” Paisley said in a phone interview Monday evening.
For the past year, Amanda Kelly and Erin Donnell have been bringing their Flat Daddies everywhere. Kelly’s Flat Daddy — a cardboard cutout of a loved one deployed overseas — is her husband, Sgt. Ryan Kelly of Lewiston; Donnell’s is her boyfriend, Sgt. Dana Gross of Levant. Both men are deployed with Maine’s 133rd Engineer Battalion at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan.
Kelly and Donnell, who are friends, brought their Flat Daddies to the Brad Paisley concert on the Bangor Waterfront on Sunday night. They had no idea that Paisley, who has a long history of supporting the troops and military families, would reach and out touch them in such a personal way. During the concert, the country superstar grabbed Kelly’s and Gross’ cardboard likenesses, brought them up onstage and signed them.
“I was shocked at first. It was really emotional. As soon as he picked Ryan and Dana up it really hit me hard,” said Kelly. “It’s hard being on the homefront alone, and it’s amazing that he supports the troops so much and has such a tribute to them during his shows.”
Paisley said he asked one of the women how long the soldiers had been gone, “and she said one year. And that’s incredible — they’re not on tour playing sold-out shows; these guys are in harm’s way for a year,” Paisley said.
And social media propelled their journey even further Sunday night.
Paisley sent out a tweet after the concert looking for better photos of the Flat Daddy encounter, as his personal photos were blurry and he wanted to know the soldiers’ names.
“They’re more than faces on a poster to me. These are each individuals, and it’s a really huge reminder that these guys over there have lives back here,” he said. “When you see the person who loves them most, it just strikes you. I wanted to know their names and who they are.”
Paisley said he was surprised when he learned the Bangor Daily News had reposted his message, and within an hour, Gross had been in touch from Afghanistan and both Kelly and Donnell responded to the BDN with their own pictures.
“I’m a huge country music fan, and this was a total surprise,” said Donnell. “I reached out to him as soon as I heard he was looking for photos.”
Luckily for Kelly, Donnell and all family members and friends of those deployed with the 133rd, the battalion is expected to return home sometime in early July. The Flat Daddies have been traveling with both women since the soldiers left for Afghanistan last August — the second deployment for both men.
And Paisley hopes that he can have another meeting with the soldiers once they’re back on U.S. soil.
“I play Boston in August, so I would like to see if they can come down and stay in touch,” Paisley said. “It’s fun to connect to these guys. This kind of connection just gives you a great feeling.”
Gross, writing by email from Afghanistan, was delighted to see the photos pop up on social media after the concert.
“One of my buddies here follows Brad [Paisley] on Twitter or Facebook, either or, and happened to recognize the two flat daddies and tagged me in a comment,” said Gross. “Then Erin and Amanda started tagging me in photos on Facebook. Not a bad way to start a day from over here.”
Kelly has taken her Flat Daddy with her to many different events.
“He comes around with me,” said Kelly. “He goes out to eat, he comes to Thanksgiving. He’s been to concerts and the movies. It just makes you feel like you have a connection. Like they aren’t missing out.”
In March, Donnell took her Flat Daddy to see Lonestar at the Collins Center for the Arts in Orono.
“Erin takes me to places whenever she gets the chance,” said Gross. “Last time I was kicking back onstage with Lonestar in Orono. She actually has a [photo] album called ‘Adventures of Flat Dana.’ She has fun with it.”
What really amazed Kelly, however, is that just three weeks ago, Paisley played a concert at Bagram when President Barack Obama came to visit, and her husband got to see the performance in person.
“We’re in this big world, and yet it’s really such a small world,” said Kelly.