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Originally published March 4, 2011 at 7:00 AM | Page modified March 4, 2011 at 2:03 PM

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Operation Hug-a-Hero helps kids cope when parents are off to war

While mothers and fathers are away, serving in the military, some children are finding comfort in pillowlike dolls decorated with their photos. Operation Hug-A-Hero has provided thousands of the dolls to families of soldiers.

St. Petersburg Times

How to get a doll

Donor dolls: Anyone can refer a family to the nonprofit Operation Hug-A-Hero or contribute $25 to sponsor a doll. For more information or to make a donation, visit operationhugahero.org.

Dolls for sale: Dolls may also be purchased directly from Daddy Dolls, the for-profit company that supplies Operation Hug-A-Hero. To buy a doll, visit daddydolls.com.

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TAMPA, Fla. — Staff Sgt. Brian Dorr is in Afghanistan, but his 2-year-old daughter Paisley sees him every day.

She hugs him. Kisses him. She bites his head.

On a pillowlike doll no bigger than Paisley's baby sister is a picture of their father in his Army uniform.

"My daddy!" Paisley says, doll in arms.

Until she wore out the battery by pressing the voice box 20 to 30 times a day, he used to answer back: "Daddy loves you and misses you, Paisley."

Her sister Anastin has a doll, too. They are among many toted around MacDill Air Force Base and thousands donated yearly to military families worldwide through the nonprofit group Operation Hug-A-Hero.

The dolls help kids cope while mothers or fathers are away, said executive director Lisa Berg of Hudson, Fla.

Her own three kids have the dolls.

"There's nothing else like it," Berg said. "They're hugging their parent."

Operation Hug-a-Hero started nearly three years ago as a nonprofit arm of Daddy Dolls, a for-profit Michigan company founded by another military mom and a friend of Berg's. On the nonprofit side, Berg said there's a waiting list of 800 families, though children of fallen heroes aren't required to wait.

The dolls are also made for the children of fallen police officers.

In Jackie Dorr's new home at MacDill Air Force Base, the benefits are obvious. Her husband will come home to daughters who know, love and recognize him.

Brian Dorr, 26, deployed to Afghanistan when Paisley was 4 months old. He left for his fourth tour six months ago, a few weeks after Anastin was born.

Online video chats between Afghanistan and Tampa help, but they don't happen every day.

Dorr has missed birthdays and Paisley's first steps. Paisley recently prepared her first meal, a peanut-butter sandwich. Anastin has started sitting up.

As they grow, the kids talk to their daddy dolls.

Paisley tells her daddy doll she's sending him the sun.

"She says, 'Hi, Daddy, I miss you so much. I miss you more than all the stars in the sky,' " said Jackie Dorr, 27.

She knows the daddy dolls (and blankets and pillows) with her husband's picture help her daughters because they take them everywhere.

When she's driving, she can look in the rearview mirror and see Paisley snuggled against the doll. Sometimes, Paisley rolls over in her bed, pressing into the voice recorder.

"We'll probably keep these forever,"Jackie Dorr said of the dolls.

She should know: In Paisley's room is a 20-year-old teddy bear that she hugged and kissed while her own dad was away, serving in the military.

The teddy bear wears a uniform with her father's name, Don Dubois. He retired from the U.S. Air Force the year she married Brian.

Sometimes, Jackie Dorr feels like a single mom. But she said she's grown stronger and more independent as she counts the days until her husband comes home. He'll return this month, to a home he hasn't seen.

He'll hold Anastin, the baby girl whose face now looks more like his. And like the daddy doll she drools on, she'll know his face, and maybe say the one word she knows: "Dada."

St. Petersburg Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ileana Morales can be reached at imorales@sptimes.com.

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