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 of those veterans and their families are looking for help from Sesame Street because the workshop 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 to the park. "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 1st Lt. 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 re-establish a physical closeness with his children, which sometimes can be difficult for families. "Hugging still means everything it did before you were hurt," Salau says.
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 1st 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.
On the other hand, there can be a tendency to give young children more information than they can handle, said Cozza, who also is an adviser to Sesame Street.
He said the new DVD seeks to strike the right balance by showing families how to talk openly about the changed situation they face without frightening young viewers.
While the program doesn't directly address emotional disorders faced by an estimated 20 percent of returning veterans, the DVD can help frame family conversations around that too, Cozza said.
Leslye Arsht, deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy, said Sesame Street 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 voices of Elmo ... and parents trust him too." Arsht said.
Army Maj. David Rozelle agreed. An amputee who spends time counseling others, Rozelle was injured in Iraq before becoming a parent to two young children.
"These little people our kids trust so much can explain limb loss and help kids cope," he said. "We don't do it very well ourselves."