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.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.