Politics & Government

The military counselor is in, and his name is Elmo

Staff Sgt. Ramon Padilla of the 173rd Airborne, shown here with his daughter, Emily, 3,  lost part of his left arm when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his unit's firebase Iraq.
Staff Sgt. Ramon Padilla of the 173rd Airborne, shown here with his daughter, Emily, 3, lost part of his left arm when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his unit's firebase Iraq. Andrew Councill / MCT

WASHINGTON — The room was full of military families as Muppets sang new "Sesame Street" songs aimed at preschoolers with parents in faraway Iraq and Afghanistan.

When Elmo, who speaks to that age group as only a 3 1/2-year-old furry red Muppet can, said sadly in his high-pitched voice, "Sometimes there are days when I miss my daddy," a child in the audience blurted out, "I miss my daddy, too!"

It nearly brought the room to tears.

But organizers and parents know it also shows that where adults fail, fuzzy creatures can succeed: Even when kids are grieving over war and separation, they'll listen to, and learn from, Elmo.

"It's a very serious topic, but the magic of 'Sesame Street' makes it a great way to talk to kids about something so serious," said Michelle Joyner, spokeswoman for the National Military Family Association, an advocacy group.

The Elmo event at the Reserve Officers Association in downtown Washington last month kicked off a new "Sesame Street" tour, in conjunction with the USO, of 43 military bases.

The tour is part of "Talk, Listen, Connect," a joint project between the children's television show and the Department of Defense. Its intent is to help young children cope with deployments, homecomings and parents who return injured.

Military families are under a lot of stress. The war in Iraq has lasted five years; the fighting in Afghanistan, seven. Many have endured multiple deployments. Or worse.

The death toll from the wars approaches 5,000 troops. More than 30,000 have been injured.

There are 650,000 children under the age of 5 in Guard, Reserve and active-duty families. But until 2006 the outreach never carried the kind of message that beloved icons such as Elmo and the Muppets can explain to children.

"What we do best is preschoolers and their parents," said Lynn Chwatsky, senior director for outreach initiatives and partners at Sesame Workshop. "We have these powerful Muppets that we have found for over 40 years can really communicate with children."

Sesame Workshop is the nonprofit group behind the television show. It collaborated with family advocates inside the Pentagon and with other experts to develop videos using Muppets, as well as interviews with real military families.

Their research found it wasn't only the children who were confused about the sudden changes at home.

"Can you imagine the frustration of these parents who feel like they didn't have the right tools or vocabulary to talk to them about it?" Chwatsky said.

The videos have the playful innocence that is the trademark of "Sesame Street," but also its underlying seriousness of purpose. And they never refer to the war by name.

"Daddy's got to do grownup work," Elmo's father tells him when he is about to go away. "I need to go help some people. It's a very important job. It's just something I have to do."

But he tells Elmo: "I'll still be able to see the moon just like you. We can each say 'good night' to the moon every night and think of each other."

Judith Padilla of Wheaton, Md., watched the video with her then-2-year-old daughter, Emily. She also has a younger son. Padilla told Emily that she was like Elmo and that her father, who was about to be deployed to Afghanistan, was like Elmo's father.

"It was really a good way to help the kids understand ... at least to have a clue what they're going to go through," she said.

Less than two months into his tour, her husband, Staff Sgt. Ramon Padilla of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, lost part of his left arm when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his unit's firebase in Kunar Province.

He was sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where he also was diagnosed with a mild case of traumatic brain injury. He's been in therapy for a year.

"Only one time did my daughter ask about my arm and what happened, and my wife told her 'Daddy got hurt at work,'" Ramon Padilla said.

"They knew Daddy was going to look little different," Judith Padilla said. "(Emily) asked me if I could take her to the store and buy a Band-Aid so she could put it on her daddy."

Sesame Workshop asked the Padillas to appear in their follow-up video this year about homecomings and parents who return with "changes."

In it, a smiling 3-year-old Emily Padilla helps her father attach his prosthetic arm. But coping with such family upheaval is not easy.

"I just wish things could go back to the way they were," Elmo's friend, Rosita, an exuberant, bilingual Muppet, tells her father in the video.

He returned from being away in a wheelchair. They always used to dance together, and she misses that. "I don't like it," Rosita says tearfully. "I wish things didn't change."

He replies: "I may be a little different, but I am still your dad. Even though some things have changed, my love for you has not."

Barbara Thompson, director of Children and Youth in the Pentagon's Office of Family Policy, said she hopes the project continues because it reaches children in a way that traditional programs don't.

"We know how credible the voice of Elmo is to a young child," Thompson said, "and it's a trusted voice to a parent."