CAYCE, S.C. – A South Carolina grandmother has become a sensation among stressed-out U.S. military men and women around the globe by sending the most incongruous of gifts: pliable, google-eye dolls.
Not that soldiers, Marines and airmen are doing much cuddling with her hand-stitched, foot-tall playthings. Carol Davis' "Dang-it-Dolls" are built to take punishment from homesick, frustrated troops and her work is getting rave reviews.
"The legs are shaped so you can grasp onto them," Air Force Staff Sgt. Rachel Staub wrote in a recent e-mail recalling her homesick days based in the United Arab Emirates. "It returned with me to the States with an eyeball missing and the stitching around the legs loose with some of the stuffing coming out."
The little doll "was used mostly for laughs and to keep my mind off being homesick," said Staub, of Melbourne, Fla. "It brought a smile to all our faces!"
Nearly 17,000 of the goofy dolls have been shipped around the world in the four years since Davis made her first one and sent it as a joke to her grandson, who was in the Air Force then in Aviano, Italy.
"I thought it would get a rise out of my grandson, 'Why are you sending me a doll?"' Davis said. "But after I sent 'em, I got messages back: "Can you send us some more?"'
Davis's grandson, 26-year-old Senior Airman Thomas Hagmaier, estimates he's given out between 1,000 and 1,500 of the dolls on his own.
"Everybody around me asks for one," he said in a phone interview from his base in Little Rock, Ark. "And I tell them, even if they destroy one, that's what it's for. I can give you more."
The foot-tall figures are made during periodic gatherings of military spouses, college students and friends who form assembly lines in Davis' garage in this small city outside Columbia. Piles of dolls covered tables and bookshelves. Some seemed anemic, awaiting stuffing and decoration. Boxes of yarn, fabric and craft paint tubes lined the walls.
Each doll is decorated at the whim of its maker. Patterns are cut out of fabric ranging from checked gingham to fuzzy fur. Yarn often sprouts from the top of the doll's head and smiles or stuck-out tongues are dabbed on with craft paint.
A few take on military dress code and colors. Davis displays photo books that show images of one unit that fashioned a flak jacket out of desert camouflage fabric for a doll that became its mascot.
Davis formed a nonprofit group to absorb the costs, with shipping being the highest expense. Most of the supplies are donated, she said.
"When you come to a workshop to help, you have to bring a box of stuffing," she said. "We will feed you, but you have to bring some stuffing."
Davis has shipped dolls to forces in Italy, the Middle East and Asia. Hundreds have been sent to Afghanistan over the past year to support a South Carolina Army National Guard unit deployed to train members of the Afghan police.
She said she hopes the dolls are used to counter the stress of far-flung deployments for troops.
"We know the hard transitions they have to make," Davis said, holding aloft one of the dolls. "And if these little fellas make them smile, that's great, too."
Army Staff Sgt. James Borchardt said that when tension rises in his tactical operations center in Iraq, he grabs his doll by the legs and beats the stuffing out of it.
"It made me laugh more than anything," he said in an e-mail. "I gave them to almost everyone in my unit."
Borchardt, an Essex, Md., native in Tikrit on his third deployment, said he first got a box of 100 dolls in the summer of 2005. His latest shipment numbered 300 because so many of his comrades wanted one.
"I was getting requests throughout the deployment," he said. "I am honored to get these dolls."