NEW YORK — Children left behind when their mother or father or sometimes both are sent away to fight are the hidden casualties of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A PBS special with advice on how families can hold together during wartime separations is both a practical guide and a window into a world that many Americans are unfamiliar with.
"I don't think most of the American public realize how big a sacrifice this is," said Gary Knell, president and chief executive of Sesame Workshop, which produced the show. "Whether you are pro-war or anti-war, the fact is we have to help these children in need."
The 30-minute show, "When Parents Are Deployed," premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday on KCET and many other PBS stations. Cuba Gooding Jr. is host.
This holiday season, an estimated 700,000 children younger than 5 are separated from a parent who is overseas in the military, the most since World War II, according to the show's creators.
"When Parents Are Deployed" is an outgrowth of an educational program geared to these children done by Sesame Workshop and funded by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Video kits are being distributed to hundreds of thousands of children with advice on how to help them cope with the anxiety felt over missing parents.
Sesame Workshop considered it such a success that it made the television show addressed primarily to parents.
"These people are so hungry for figuring out connections with their kids," Knell said, "and what better vehicle than 'Sesame Street' and the Muppets?"
Several different military families are interviewed about their own experiences, although, at the request of the Department of Defense, their names aren't used. A variety of different perspectives are sought -- families that are black, white and Latino, some single moms, and another where a grandmother is caring for the youngsters.
The families also talk about what happens before Mom or Dad leaves and what happens when they return. One woman, for instance, talks about how her husband spent his last few weeks fixing things around the house and preparing for his absence, when what the family most wanted was to spend time with him. Some families also have problems integrating a parent back into the household after they had developed a routine for several months without him or her.
There are several creative ideas for maintaining connections. One father set up a ritual with his son where they both said good night to the moon as they went to bed, thinking of the other doing the same thing halfway around the world. Children prepared elaborate books with pictures of themselves for their parent to look through while away.
Computers also offer far more opportunities for connections than ever before.
"The one thing I learned is that the military kids tend to be pretty resilient," Knell said. "They seem to born into a culture that's made for resiliency."
One veteran talks proudly about how he had left behind a large glass jar filled with little messages from him for them to read, one a day, while he was gone.
His daughter sits bravely beside him as he talks until she can't take it any more. She dissolves into tears at the memory.
The emotionally wrenching moment says more than words could about the difficulties these families face.
None of the parents involved in the special have been subsequently killed or injured, said Jeannette Betancourt, vice president for outreach and educational practices at Sesame Workshop.
"I think it's incredibly important that the public broadcasting system chose to air it," said Charles Bolden, who four years ago retired as a major general after nearly 35 years in the Marine Corps. Bolden was among a group of military and medical advisors Sesame Workshop consulted on the project. "The story that is told is one that the vast majority of Americans don't have a clue about," he said.
There's a deep disconnect in the United States between the families fighting this war and those that aren't, almost like separate societies, Bolden said.
Makers of "When Parents Are Deployed" are worried that people with no personal connection to anyone in the war will shrug and change the channel if they come across the special, when in many ways it's just as important that they see it.
"Hopefully there will be some people who will be touched by it and try to make a difference," said Bolden, mentioning scholarship funds for children in military families.
Completely unspoken in the special is what is undoubtedly the biggest fear of the military children: that Mom or Dad will return from Iraq seriously injured or not return at all. Knell said this was done because grief brought with it entirely different issues than absence, and would change the show's focus.
He's open to doing another special where this issue is addressed, provided funding could be secured.