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Sesame Workshop produces DVD for families of injured soldiers

NEW YORK - It's not your typical "Sesame Street" episode. There are no lessons in letters or numbers, but there are plenty of hugs and lots of talk about feelings.

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces the hit kids' show, is working on a DVD that will be distributed to military families. It's designed to help injured veterans talk about their disabilities with their children.

Gary E. Knell, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, said some veterans and their families are looking for help from the organization because it produced a popular DVD last year aimed at helping military families discuss the strain of deployments.

More than a million children have parents who are in the military and have been deployed in the last six years. And roughly 18,000 military personnel in Iraq or Afghanistan have been wounded or injured seriously enough to be evacuated.

In the new production, Rosita, a fluffy blue mop-headed muppet, is upset because her father has returned home in a wheelchair. Rosita angrily refers to the wheelchair as "that thing" and reminisces about the days when she could dance to salsa music and kick a ball with her dad.

With encouragement from Elmo, Rosita musters the nerve to talk with her parents about how she is feeling. "Sometimes I feel a little sad, because things are so different now," Rosita says during a family outing. "I wish your legs were OK, Papi, and I wish you didn't have to go to the doctor so much. And I just wish things could go back to the way they were!"

Rosita's father tells her that although he may have changed, his love for her hasn't. And he persuades her to hop on the back of his wheelchair so the two can try a new kind of dancing.

Retired Army First Lieutenant Ed Salau said it's important for families to find new activities to do together after a parent is injured.

Salau lost a leg in a rocket attack while serving in Iraq. He said when it happened, he immediately thought of his young children. "I got my leg blown off," he said. "All I was thinking about was, 'Am I going to be able to dance with my daughter or play soccer with my son?' "

Back home, Salau said he worked quickly to reestablish a physical closeness with his children, which sometimes can be difficult for families. "Hugging still means everything it did before you were hurt," Salau said.

Knell said Sesame Street is trying to model behavior and provide the vocabulary for parents who need extra help. "In many cases, Mommy and Daddy or caregivers may not have the tools necessary to deal with these very tough-to-teach issues," Knell said.

Psychiatry professor Stephen Cozza of Uniformed Services University, which trains military doctors, said a parent's injury or emotional problem is often "a big white elephant in the room that nobody's talking about."

Navy Petty Officer First Class Michael Lammey and his wife, Rose, can relate to that. Michael was badly burned in an explosion while serving in Guam last year.

The burns almost killed him and left him disfigured. Rose said she and her husband initially had a lot of trouble discussing what happened with the couple's three young daughters.

"We didn't know how to handle that sensitive issue. We just put it aside for a little bit until we could sit down as a family and talk it out," Rose said in a telephone interview from San Antonio, where her husband is still receiving treatment.

Leslye Arsht, deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy, said Sesame Workshop is doing something that isn't easy for the military to tackle alone.

"There is no more credible voice for 3-to-5-year-olds than the voice of Elmo . . . and parents trust him too." Arsht said.

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