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TELEVISION REVIEW

PBS looks at war's impact on soldiers' children

Cuba Gooding Jr. hosts 'When Parents Are Deployed,' a special that is part of Sesame Workshop's outreach initiative. Cuba Gooding Jr. hosts "When Parents Are Deployed," a special that is part of Sesame Workshop's outreach initiative. (Anthony J. Causi/Sesame Workshop)

When Parents Are Deployed
On: Channel 2
Time: Tonight at 9

Of all the current tales of wartime sacrifice and hardship, the heartrending stories of American soldiers, you seldom hear much about the toddlers.

Thus, it comes as a shock -- at least, it did to me -- to hear that 700,000 American children under age 5 now have a parent deployed in military service. Many are separated from fathers or mothers for a year at a time, an outsize proportion of a still-short life.

This figure and reminder come from Sesame Workshop, which in partnership with Wal-Mart has devised a DVD for military families with young kids. It's called "Talk, Listen, Connect" and stars Elmo (who else?), who must learn to cope when his daddy goes away for a long trip. Several hundred thousand kits are going out to military families; the rest of us can see a few clips tonight on Channel 2, when PBS presents a half-hour special, "When Parents Are Deployed."

This show, hosted by Cuba Gooding Jr., is completely apolitical, largely unsentimental, and totally affecting, probably the more so for its lack of polemicism. It features a handful of military families, struggling mightily to stay in tear-free, educational mode as they talk about managing the absence and re-entry.

One mother helps her children cope by telling them their father is a hero. Another mother, who has served herself, says she expects that someday -- the word is sad, and cutting -- her daughter will be proud of what she did.

And in the most quietly touching scenes, parents talk about the ways they ensure that they'll stay present in their children's lives. One father records videotapes of himself reading bedtime stories. Another prints out little messages, cuts them into tiny strips of paper, and puts them in a jar, so his children can pull out a couple of them every morning before school.

It's mostly parents talking here; the kids are largely stoic, either too young to express nuanced feelings, or too protected to bare all before the cameras. One exception is a girl with two military parents, who starts to talk about her father's absence -- he's the one who wrote those notes, and she's asked how they made her feel -- when she freezes, her eyes turning glassy and wet. Her father wraps her up in an embrace, and you wish, for both of their sakes, that they'll never be apart again.

But that's one of the ominous clouds that loom, mostly unacknowledged, over this short special. In Iraq, multiple tours of duty are common, so it's not hard to sense the threat of another parting. And we wonder -- though this thought, too, remains mostly unsaid -- how some live with the possibility that a temporary absence will turn permanent.

If the kids are mostly too young to understand, the rest of us aren't spared. That, in itself, is a useful service. "When Parents Are Deployed" reminds us how invisible this war has been: The vast majority of Americans haven't been asked to sacrifice at all. But some disproportionately young people are paying a disproportionate price. That's not meant to be a political statement, but it feels like one anyhow.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog

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