‘Sesame Street’ takes on the impact of war

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on March 1, 2020. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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“Sesame Street” recently introduced its viewers to the face of modern war, and she goes by “Charlie.” For the first time in more than two decades, the show brought on a new (human) kid as a character. Young Violet Tinnirello plays 8-year-old “Charlotte,” who has just moved to the Street after her parents retired from the active duty military. And Charlie’s role in the show is sure to set a spotlight on some of the challenges of today’s military service.

On any given day, roughly 250,000 Americans are overseas serving their country in uniform. In the US Army alone, a recent estimate found that when the sun sets every night, approximately 67,000 spouses see nothing but emptiness on the other side of the bed where their husbands and wives should be, and over 105,000 kids are without a mom that’s mobilized or a dad that’s deployed. Mind you, those parent-and-child figures account for just one of the six US armed force service branches.

Being overseas is a zero-sum game for each of those families. When you’re gone, you’re gone. No matter how inconvenient or painful that might be—and it’s always inconvenient and painful.

While I had deployed before having children, my recent tour in South Korea was different. Just before I left, my eyes were opened to just how difficult it is to leave a full family behind.

I can still see my daughter’s little body on the floor, trembling, with vomit exiting her bluish lips. I was shaking, and then later, shaken.

Everything changed with our 3-year-old’s first seizure that December. My wife called, and I drove home recklessly, arriving just ahead of the ambulance. That night and the subsequent weeks were difficult. After multiple tests and second opinions, we learned that our daughter had (and has) a seizure condition. The neurologist prescribed medication and told us to be ready for the next strike.

Still, I left for South Korea. I had to. My officer’s commission is an oath that, sometimes, unpleasant as it is to admit—supersedes my marriage bond and both our kids’ birth certificates. Service is a privilege. But deployed service can be a painful privilege.

That pain comes from knowing the cost the family bears. And for the most part, they bear it alone. I missed birthdays, our younger daughter’s first words and steps, and I left my wife to tackle it all as a single parent. Dad was a disappointment to them that year. I let them down.

The littlest things wear you down, like a bad videophone call. Soon after arrival, we thought we’d try a video “goodnight.” It was great…right up until my daughter asked, “Daddy, will you be home tomorrow?”

It hit me with the force of a flatland tornado. My tears were an involuntary physical response, knowing that we were just days into a year-long separation.

Day by day, we made it to now. It’s taken time—frankly, years—to repair the rift caused by that too-long gap. There’s scar tissue in several spots, and naturally I still worry that I’ll get another call to go again.

We’ve since settled in a place we love to live. But it’s not hard to notice that very few of the kids at school get dropped off by a parent wearing cammo, so I’m hyper-aware that my daughters’ experiences are a distinct minority and not widely understood.

That’s where Charlie comes in. She’s 8, like my daughter, and in this 50th season of “Sesame Street,” some of those issues specific to military kids will play out on-screen. Someone will speak for us, help others understand why we’re just a bit different than other families, on the biggest stage in children’s television. That’s a good thing. It gives us a little help, and maybe even some hope.

Because everyone knows you’ve got a good shot when Big Bird’s your battle buddy.

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