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Dempsey: Sesame Workshop Gives Top Support to Families

By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 18, 2012 – Sesame Workshop’s resources and outreach have done more to help families cope with repeated deployments during a decade of war than anything the military could have done alone, the military’s top officer said here today.

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sesame’s “Talk, Listen, Connect: Deployments, Homecomings, Changes” campaign -- a kit of DVDs and booklets designed to get families to discuss the unique challenges of military service with young children -- sends “a powerful signal and produces a better outcome” than the Defense Department or military services could do on their own.

Dempsey made the comments as part of a Sesame Workshop panel discussion with other military and veteran advocates. ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff, who suffered a traumatic brain injury while reporting on the war in Iraq, and his wife, Lee, also an author and journalist, hosted the event at the National Press Club.

“I bet you’ll pay more attention to what Rosita says than what any four-star general says,” Dempsey said, as the green furry monster puppet made an appearance at the lectern next to him.

In creating the programming, Sesame writers had to determine “how we take the child’s perspective so the adult is willing to go through that door with them,” said Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame’s senior vice president of outreach and education.

Sesame created three episodes for the campaign, each with celebrity guest hosts: “When Parents are Deployed,” with Cuba Gooding Jr.; “Coming Home: Military Families Cope With Change,” featuring Queen Latifah and John Mayer; and “When Families Grieve” with Katie Couric. The shows aired nationwide on television and are streamed on Sesame’s website.

The episodes depict the Sesame characters experiencing the same events military children may have to cope with, such as when Elmo’s father leaves for deployment, and Rosita’s father returns from deployment in a wheelchair.

“Talking is so important, and sharing,” 5-year-old Rosita said. “My family went through big changes, because my poppy got hurt and he couldn’t walk anymore.”

Retired Marine Corps Maj. Nico Marcolongo, program manager for the Challenged Athletes Foundation Operation Rebound, spoke from the panel about returning from his second deployment in Iraq, and suffering post-traumatic stress.

“My circle got very small when I was first home,” Marcolongo said. He described being self-absorbed, distracted and detached. “The most disconcerting was I felt no love for my family,” he said.

Marcolongo’s then 3-year-old son mimicked him, he said, pacing back and forth in the house like his father. “It was real tough coming home with a wound I couldn’t see and nobody else could see,” he said. Marcolongo got help, and helped his son with the “Talk, Listen, Connect” videos, which he said teach families how to talk about the changes, accept their feelings and know they are not alone.

Patty Shinseki, wife of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, spoke of her decades as a military wife and mother.

“This absolutely zeroed in on those feelings that military families experience,” said Shinseki, who serves on the Military Child Education Coalition board. Her husband is a retired Army general.

“The single, most wonderful change” for military families since her family served, Shinseki said, is that now families can receive help and resources 24/7 through programs like Sesame’s. “We can’t go back through that gate,” she said. “We’ve got to keep this conversation alive for the children.”

Dempsey described the Sesame initiative -- funded by a consortium of public, private and nonprofit entities -- as the perfect partnership to help military families. Rather than “just another government program,” he said, the program shows military families that the nation cares.

The chairman added that such initiatives are important to keeping trust with military families who all sacrifice for the nation.

“The equipment won’t always be perfect, my orders won’t always be perfect, and the organization we create won’t always be perfect,” he said. “What has to be perfect is that trust with the families.”

Dempsey, who is known for occasionally breaking into song, closed the event with a surprise a cappella rendition of the Sesame Street theme song.


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Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey

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