REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--During a two-year stint, a little paper doll visited several different countries and U.S. cities in the ammo pouch of Lt. Col. Sean Clark's uniform.

And if Clark was out of uniform on a vacation, that paper doll still went visiting, only on these trips he was placed snugly in a camera bag.

In 2008, "Flat," who is a member of an international literacy and community building activity program called the Flat Stanley Project, became a tool for special needs student Canaan Gilmore of Midtown Elementary School near Knoxville to learn about the world. The Flat Stanley Project is one of several educational programs used in schools throughout the nation to teach world history and geography.

Because of his teacher's military connection, Canaan's Flat was among several Flat Stanley paper dolls mailed from Midtown Elementary's third-grade class to Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq. He was lucky enough to become Clark's constant companion, first, on a one-month assignment and, then, on a two-year journey that included two wars and family travels.

"He has spent time with me in Iraq three times and in Afghanistan during a very harsh time. But he has also enjoyed cruising the Caribbean and a nice, long six-week cruise from Australia through New Zealand, the South Pacific, Hawaii and into Canada," Clark wrote in an e-mail to Canaan's teacher last year.

Clark, who is the assistant project manager for the desert deployments of Black Hawk in the Utility Helicopters Project Office, returned Flat to Canaan last May, but the memories of the adventures Flat had with Clark are still fun to recall, and Clark, who volunteers in local schools, would like to encourage other Soldiers and Arsenal employees to participate in the Flat Stanley Project if they get a chance.

But first they have to be asked.

"One of the majors who worked for me in Iraq had an aunt who is a school teacher at Midtown Elementary," Clark recalled.

"One day he got a large package with 30 of these Flat Stanleys in it. We worked for the 2145 Garrison Support Unit out of Nashville. The Flat Stanleys were distributed to Soldiers within our organization and others who were interested in the project."

Each of the Flat Stanleys, about 3 inches in height and wearing pants, and a shirt and tie colored with crayons, were on a one-month assignment with their Soldier. The Soldiers took pictures of their Flat Stanley at different locations in Iraq. They also wrote stories about their Flat Stanley's adventures to send back to the students.

"It was nice having something like this with us from home," Clark recalled. "It kind of took our minds off being 7,000 miles away from home in 135-degree temperatures. They provided us with a little piece of home in our down time. Canaan is a special needs student, so it was all the more touching to be able to give his Flat a really good story to tell."

When the Soldiers returned the Flat Stanleys to Midtown Elementary, school teachers put them on a bulletin board with a world map to show all the different places the paper dolls had gone.

And this is where Clark's story diverges from the rest. Canaan's Flat did not return after a month. Rather, he went on a worldwide trip with Clark for the next two years.

"With all the traveling we were doing and all the interesting places we were going, I decided to keep Flat. He stayed with me at Camp Victory from March to December 2008," Clark said. "Then, he went with me to Australia and the adventures just continued. I took him on a lot of pre-site visits that I made to get units ready for overseas deployments. Because of all the travels for work and pleasure, I kept him really longer than most people do."

During that worldwide trip, Clark photographed Flat in all kinds of places and situations, The collection of photos includes the paper doll with Clark at a hospital in Iraq, with stewardesses on a flight to Fiji, with a Star Wars artist on St. Martin Island in the Caribbean, with other Flat Stanleys in the Bahamas, with Koala bears in Australia, with a Bohemian police officer and with a bear Flat Stanley on a cruise ship.

Flat joined Clark in visiting 16 countries, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Tahiti, Germany, Bora Bora and Afghanistan, and 25 states, including Alaska, Hawaii, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington and California.

And everywhere he went, Flat was posed for a picture.

"We would think of places to take pictures of Flat," said Clark, who said his family, friends and even Soldiers got into the fun. "We would be traveling or going somewhere and we would think 'Hey, that would be a great place to take a picture of Flat.'"

Finally, in late 2009, Clark was stationed at Redstone. It was time, he decided, to take Flat back to Canaan.

"I wanted to personally take Flat back with a few mementoes," Clark said. "I notified the teacher and they shut down school that afternoon (in May 2010) so the whole school - 350 kids - could come to a slide show I had put together about Flat and his travels. They enjoyed the stories I had to share with them and the pictures. It was a good way to close out the project for me."

Clark said he would take on another Flat Stanley. After all, they don't weigh much or take up much space in a suitcase, and they don't cry or complain. For Clark, Flat provided him a way to reach out to children and to teach them about the world.

"It's very entertaining and educational for the child involved and fun for me," Clark said. "A lot of the kids in Canaan's class and his entire school haven't even left the county where they live. They were able to learn about the world through all the places Flat was photographed.

"I was really very moved by the whole response the kids gave me when I brought Flat back to the school and to Canaan. His mom burst out in tears. Everyone was very appreciative of the effort I made to take pictures of Flat in different places."

During the school presentation, the children asked a lot of questions about Flat's adventures. But they also asked a lot about Clark's job as a Soldier.

"I got questions like: 'Did you shoot a bad guy over there'' Those are the kinds of things young kids will ask. Instead of answering that directly, I put a positive on it and told them we were in charge of keeping the peace," Clark said. "But, those kinds of questions did give me a chance to share with them what it's like to be a Soldier and be in the Army. I love what I do and I love sharing that with children."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16