- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

“In 1943, my father just disappeared from my life. He was drafted … [and] I was two-and-a-half years old and didn’t know why my father left me. In those days, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles did not believe that children needed to know what was happening … [or that children] would blame themselves for their father’s immediate disappearance.” The fear of abandonment expressed in this e-mail, sent to Sesame Workshop from the military community, is still one of the most common and terrifying emotions a young child feels when a parent is deployed.

In April, in response to the staggering number of military families with young children facing deployments of a Mom or Dad, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind “Sesame Street,” launched Phase 2 of an initiative specifically designed to support military families with children between ages 2 and 5 experiencing deployments, multiple deployments or when a parent returns home changed due to a combat-related injury.

When we think of the causalities, challenges and sacrifices of war, we rarely think of the smallest members of our military families who forfeit something irreplaceable when a parent is deployed: having Mom or Dad at home. For a small child, Mom and Dad are the world, and having that world “disappear” is both upsetting and confusing.

“Combat related stresses - parental deployment, injury, post-combat mental health sequelae and death - can have profound effects on military families,” Dr. Stephen Cozza a professor at the Uniformed Services University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Associate Director for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress told us. “Little scientific study informs our understanding of the impact of these events on military families and children at the current operational tempo.”

According to a 2007 Army survey, the anxiety resulting from a lengthy deployment and family separation was cited as the top noncombat source of stress for our service men and women. Deployment has a deep impact on family life.

When parents are deployed, they are no longer part of the family’s day-to-day. Those left at home often must take on more responsibilities, which takes a physical, emotional and financial toll on the whole family, especially children. When one family member is deployed, the whole family is deployed and children carry a special burden.

A 2008 Rand Corp. survey found as many as 700,000 children under age 5 have a parent in the military. And an estimated 300,000 U.S. troops are experiencing major depression or post-traumatic stress from serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 320,000 suffered some sort of brain injury. This radically alters the reality a family endures once the deployed spouse returns, making the homecoming almost as difficult as the deployment.

This is why Sesame Workshop used its characters and powerful real stories of active service personnel to produce our bilingual “Talk, Listen, Connect” kit. Thus far, we’ve given away more than 600,000 kits with an increasing number of families of members of our Armed Forces looking for tools and resources to address their family’s needs. TLC helps families identify and bridge the communication gap that arises from a small child’s inability to express his or her emotions and a parent’s uncertainty in addressing the complexity of the situation Who better than their friend Elmo, whom they identify with, to let them know it’s OK to feel the way they feel?

As an extension of TLC, Sesame Workshop in partnership with the USO created “The Sesame Street Experience for Military Families”: a free, 60-minute experience featuring a live Muppet performance and giveaways that traveled across the U.S. from July to November 2008, performing at 43 military installations from California to Florida. You have to witness the faces of the kids’ parents and the emotional expressions of gratitude I received to know we were fulfilling our “mission.”

As we celebrate the National Month of the Military Family, this is an opportunity for us all to renew our commitment to the families of our service members by giving them the support and resources they need during both deployment and when they return home. Adjusting to a new “normal” can be daunting without the right resources and it is incumbent on the recipients of their sacrifice and our government to make certain the help they need is available when they need it.

Gary Knell is president and chief executive officer for Sesame Workshop To learn more about “Talk, Listen, Connect” and the “Sesame Street Experience for Military Families,” please visit www.sesamestreet.org/tlc.


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