Big Bird and Elmo help children learn their ABCs and about the world around them. Now, with the help of a Solana Beach family, they're assisting them in coping when moms and dads come home with visible and invisible injuries of war.
Nico, Lisa and Rocco Marcolongo were one of four families featured in a Sesame Street special "Coming Home: Military Families Cope With Change." Aimed at children ages 3 to 8, it's a half-hour program hosted by Queen Latifah and Elmo that aired on PBS nationwide on April 1, and will re-air on KPBS-TV (Channel 15/Cable 11) at 4:30 p.m. April 5.
"Sesame Street was everything you imagine it would be," said Lisa Marcolongo.
The family was flown out to the New York set, where they got to sit in Big Bird's nest and Oscar's trash can in between filming. It was debatable who had more fun - 5-year-old Rocco who is a new fan, or parents Nico and Lisa who grew up watching the iconic show.
The Marcolongo's were invited to participate in the special because they have first-hand experience dealing with invisible war injuries.
His smile's back
Marine Corps Maj. Nico Marcolongo returned from two tours in Iraq in early 2007 with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For the first several months, he was detached and couldn't get out of bed. After two years of treatment, Marcolongo is smiling and enjoying time with his family.
"It's so important to get the word out, hey, there's an avenue out there," Marcolongo said. "We don't need to cover it up; we don't need to stigmatize it."
Along with unwavering family support, the most critical thing for Marcolongo's recovery was reaching out for help, and in turn, encouraging others to do the same, he said.
Marcolongo founded a PTSD support group that meets every Thursday. He strives to help others understand that their symptoms are not their fault, but part of the job, and to seek therapy.
The group has grown to include moderators from a Vietnam veteran organization, American Combat Veterans of War. And now instead of just veterans, active duty service members are also attending.
"The support group is publicized on base - that's something that was not happening even two years ago," Marcolongo said.
Awareness and openness about PTSD has come a long way both within the military and the broader community, and that's in part thanks to programs like Sesame Street, Marcolongo said.
Lisa Marcolongo said having this program would have been extremely helpful two years ago to help answer Rocco's questions like "Why is daddy upset all the time?"
"I did my best to explain to him," she said. "But it would have been helpful for him to see Elmo and Rosita and other families going through the same things."
Much has changed since a November 2007 interview with the Marcolongos. Nico Marcolongo was medically discharged from the Marine Corps in 2008. He now works for the Challenged Athletes Foundation managing Operation Rebound, a program he helped create to aid injured military and law enforcement members gain greater independence through sports.
But while he enjoys his new job, Marcolongo still faces his own challenges with PTSD.
"It's like little roller coasters," he said. "You have to take care of it. The effects are not as acute if you do the right things."
For example, he said, he can't work as intensely as he used to and has to make sure to get enough sleep.
Things are different, Lisa Marcolongo said, but they're better - there's laughter in the house.
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