Photo Information

Capt. Jared Blake, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit assistant communications officer, holds a Flat Stanley cutout in front of a castle near Limassol, Cyprus, April 3, 2013. The Flat Stanley was sent to him by his friends' children, as a way for him to connect with them throughout his deployment by taking photos with the cutout and sending them back to the children. The 26th MEU is deployed to the 5th Fleet area of operations aboard the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group. The 26th MEU operates continuously across the globe, providing the president and unified combatant commanders with a forward-deployed, sea-based quick reaction force. The MEU is a Marine Air-Ground Task Force capable of conducting amphibious operations, crisis response and limited contingency operations. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Christopher Q. Stone/Released)

Photo by Capt. Lucas Burke

Building bridges with photographs

10 Apr 2013 | Cpl. Kyle N. Runnels 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit

Small, joyous and colorful stuffed animals and toys are appearing all over the world in the most unusual and exotic places due to a handful of Marines with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit adopting the idea of the Flat Stanley Project. The idea helps the Marines keep connected to their friends, families and loved ones during their 2013 deployment.

Flat Stanley is a book written by Jeff Brown in 1964. The main character, Stanley Lambchop, is flattened during his sleep by a fallen bulletin board. He takes advantage of his paper-thin state and begins traveling by mailing himself to his friends.

  “My best friend that lives in Utah has four children, and I wanted to have a way to involve them in the deployment,” said Capt. Jared D. Blake, 26th MEU assistant communications officer from Montevallo, Ala. “They are curious about what I do in the Marine Corps and where ‘Uncle Blake,’ as they call me, goes on trips. I suggested that my friend have them color some Flat Stanleys since they are small and can be taken anywhere. Each one of his children selected a Flat Stanley, colored it for me and sent them to me in the mail. I laminated them all so that they will last the whole deployment.”

According to, Dale Hubert began the Flat Stanley Project in 1994 where students would craft their own Flat Stanley cut-outs and mail them to other participating classrooms around the world where the recipients would take pictures with the crafts and then exchange the photographs. Through this project, children are exposed to different cultures and lifestyles.

In a more popular turn of events, a new trend is taking the Flat Stanley idea and making it more personal by using sentimental objects.

“This allows me to show my son a little glimpse of what I am doing,” said Cpl. Christopher Q. Stone, a Myrtle Beach, S.C., native, and combat cameraman assigned to the 26th MEU. “I take an Elmo stuffed animal with me wherever I go and take photographs of him whenever I get the opportunity. It helps my son understand, or at least see, what I am doing and he knows I am somewhere out there, and I am not absent from his life. This helps keep a bridge between us in our lives.”

“I do this to keep my son involved,” said Gunnery Sgt. Michael Kropiewnicki, 26th MEU combat camera chief, and Queens, N.Y., native. “He is only four years old, so it is hard to communicate with him when I say ‘daddy is going away or mommy is going away for a long time.’ It is easier to incorporate what I say with photographs and video to keep that bond. It is nice for them to see their favorite characters running around with mom or dad in all these foreign places in the world.”

Bringing a toy that a child easily recognizes helps keep a connection between a deployed parent and child, helping the youth understand their parents time away from home.

“I took my son to see the USS North Carolina,” said Kropiewnicki. “I told him I was going to be on a ship like that so he thinks I am off with the Marines in faraway lands fighting pirates. He chose a Jake the Pirate toy for me so it fits the theme of daddy going away.”

The Marines who participate have different ideas on what they want to do with the pictures. Some are immediately displaying the photos while others have bigger plans when they get home.

“Right now I have an album on Facebook where I post all the pictures,” said Stone. “I plan on making a book when I get back for my son. With each picture I will incorporate a lesson on the area I was in when I took the photo. For instance, I can give a brief lesson on diving for the photos I took with Elmo underwater at Souda Bay.”

“When taking the photographs I usually like to do two things,” said Kropiewnicki. “I like to take portraits or do a ‘Where’s Waldo.’ The Jake the Pirate toy I have is pretty small so I can hide it somewhere in the photograph and make a game out of it. When my son only sees Jake he thinks it is the greatest thing ever. When he only sees me in the picture he says ‘daddy is being silly,' but when he sees Jake and I together in the photographs he knows I am out there working, and since I have his toy, he knows I have to come back, sooner or later.”

26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable)