Finding Katie

After attending Wednesday’s rehearsal of the Sesame Street/USO Military Family Experience kickoff event in Columbus, Ohio, I was thinking about the genius of the Sesame Street developers who created ‘Katie,’ the new character who tells Elmo during the program that her military family has to move, once again, to another base.

Since the character says so much about what children of our service members have endured since September 11, 2001, I set out at Thursday’s event to find a real  ‘Katie,’ who is living the story that Sesame Street has so vividly created for military kids, as well as children who may not realize why some of their friends have to move away.  After about 90 minutes of searching inside the Franklin County Veterans Memorial auditorium, I came across little Isabella Haas.

Maj John Haas and his daughter Isabella, 3, wait for the kick off of the fifth installment of The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families at the Franklin County Veterans Memorial in Columbus, Ohio April 14, 2011. (USO Photo by Fred Greaves)

Maj John Haas and his daughter Isabella, 3, wait for the kick off of the fifth installment of The Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families at the Franklin County Veterans Memorial in Columbus, Ohio April 14, 2011. (USO Photo by Fred Greaves)

As Isabella awaited the appearance of her favorite Sesame character, Elmo, her father, Army Maj. John Haas, told me that she had just celebrated her third birthday the day before the special performance in Columbus.  Maj. Haas and his wife, Dawnann, also planned on enjoying the day with their daughter, because soon, the soldier will be headed to Afghanistan, where he will spend 270 days apart from his little girl.

When I asked Maj. Haas what it will be like spending so much time away from his wife and child, he visibly shuddered, graciously deferring to his spouse to answer a very emotional question.

“We have the Sesame Street book,” Mrs. Haas said, referring to ‘Talk, Listen, Connect,’ which was handed out for free at the performance to help kids cope with deployments, homecomings, and changes, and also includes DVDs.  “We’re also making a cut-out of dad for her to hug, putting her daddy’s voice in a recorded storybook, and figuring out how to use Skype, even though he’ll be in an area that doesn’t have much internet access.”

In addition to Sesame Street, the USO, and the Joining Forces program, Mrs. Haas is channeling other important resources to help her and Isabella cope with the difficulties of the near future.  Maj. Haas’ three brothers are also in the military, and one may still be deployed in Afghanistan when her husband arrives.  Mrs. Haas said she plans to lean on her sisters-in-law, as well as another important force in her family’s life.

“Faith will get me through,” she said.  “The hardest part is Isabella — she’s old enough to know he’s gone, but not old enough to understand.”

When Katie explained to Elmo, Cookie Monster, Grover, and Honker that she has tough days ahead, perhaps little Isabella could relate.  Maybe by watching Katie, it helped Isabella realize that her daddy isn’t leaving because he wants to, or because he doesn’t love her.  It’s because he’s a hero, and this is what heroes do.

Isabella wasn’t the only ‘Katie’ in the audience.  ‘Katie’ is every child who has seen their mommy or daddy leave for a faraway land, or moved with their parents to unfamiliar places around the world.

A few minutes before the performance, Sesame Street and the USO gave little Isabella Haas, sitting on the lap of her soldier dad, an autographed picture of all the characters in the show, including her favorite, Elmo.  “To Isabella, we love you,” a character wrote.

For 270 difficult days, that picture will hopefully remind Isabella of a day she laughed and smiled together with her mom and dad.  With so much love surrounding this child, I have to believe that even better days are still to come.


What I will remember most about Thursday’s Sesame Street/USO Experience for Military Families kickoff event in Columbus, Ohio, are the looks I saw on faces of elated children and their smiling parents, many of whom were wearing military uniforms.

Sesame Street/USO Experience USO Photo by Fred Greaves

With multiple deployments and frequent moves already under their belts, and more possibly on the way, April 14 at the Franklin County Veterans Memorial auditorium was a day to laugh, hug, and even shed some tears of joy. Thanks to the supremely talented professionals behind Sesame Street, performers like Nick Jonas and Navy veteran Udo Maroscher, who sang the Star-Spangled Banner, the hard work of the USO, and the graciousness of America’s First Ladies, these military families were able to press the pause button on the stress of their sacrifices, if only for a few moments.

“Being deployed is part of being in the military, but it’s hard,” Air Force Master Sgt. Ed Ralston told the USO while sitting next to his nine-year-old daughter, Amber. “The kids aren’t always old enough to understand. My wife of 20 years, who has been with me all the way, explains to our little girl that ‘daddy will just be gone for a little while.'”

A new Sesame Street character, Katie, debuted on the tour, which hits Alaska next, to help children of U.S. service members understand the complicated realities that affect their families on a daily basis. Sesame Street’s efforts to create this unique symbol of post-9/11 military life, as well as the USO’s enthusiasm in showcasing the program, were met with genuine appreciation from special guests in the audience.

“This is something special that these kids deserve,” Stephanie Millender, wife of Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Millender, said as the couple’s excited kids waited for the show to begin. “I still remember all the birthdays my husband missed, but today, we feel blessed.”

The wife of Army Staff Sgt. Brian Newcombe, who deployed overseas in 2005 and 2008, admitted that they pulled their two daughters out of school early to attend the once-in-a-lifetime event, which was about an hour away from their Mt. Vernon, Ohio, home.

“Their teachers couldn’t believe they were going to see the First Lady,” Barb Newcombe said.

The euphoric emotion I saw on the faces of Mary, 11, and Megan, 9, were in stark contrast to how the children reacted to their dad’s most recent deployment.

“It was tough,” Barb said. “Our oldest stopped eating for a while and our youngest got mad, and just kept being angry while he was away.”

When I asked young Mary how she felt when her father got home from his deployment, she smiled, and nodded an enthusiastic ‘yes’ when I asked if it was the hardest she’d ever hugged her dad.

USO president Sloan Gibson called military children the event’s “VIPs,” and appropriately, they were treated like the most important people in the packed auditorium. Gary Knell, CEO of Sesame Workshop, joined Gibson in paying homage to our men and women in uniform and their children. Dr. Jill Biden led a round of applause for military kids, as Michelle Obama issued a call to support Joining Forces, the White House campaign to help loved ones of our nation’s true heroes.

“Everyone can do something to support military families,” the first lady said to loud applause.

Judging by the looks I saw on the faces of children and their parents on Thursday, Sesame Street and the USO are off to a fine start. Now, with those faces burned into our memories, the hard work of putting our military families first begins anew.