POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 26, 2013
President Barack Obama stepped away from the seclusion of his quiet Hawaii vacation for what's become a Christmas tradition: paying tribute to U.S. troops and the sacrifices their families make during the holidays and throughout the year.
After a morning of presents and carols with their two daughters, the president and first lady Michelle Obama took a short drive to Marine Corps Base Hawaii, where nearly 600 troops and their families gathered in a mess hall, half-eaten pieces of cake still on the table from Christmas dinner.
"Michelle and I know that we would not enjoy the freedoms we do if it weren't for the incredible dedication and professionalism and work that you do," Obama said. "The least we can do is just let you all know we're grateful to you."
Obama, dressed informally in dark pants and a blue shirt, called out the names of some of the military units stationed here, prompting loud whoops from the troops. He recalled speaking by phone on Christmas Eve with 10 service members stationed in places like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
"It was just a sampling of the incredible sacrifice that you and your families make every single day," Obama said as he and the first lady prepared to pose for photos. Before departing, the Hawaii-born Obama wished the troops "Mele Kalikimaka."
Members of the Marine Corps said meeting the Obamas and taking a photograph with them was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"The experience was amazing," said Staff Sgt. Tyrone Butler. "My wife (Laureel) was awe-struck. She said the first lady gives the best hugs. ... It was a dream come true, not only for her, but for the whole family."
Capt. Adam Brown said a lot of Marines and their families appreciated the president taking Christmas Day to express his gratitude.
"It was a great honor," Brown said. "It was really cool."
Sgt. Salvador Torres said Obama shook his hand and said, "Thank you," and was flexible enough to allow his 4-year-old son to hold his robot toy while taking the family photograph.
Aside from a basketball game and dinner at a Honolulu restaurant, the Obamas have remained largely out of sight since arriving here over the weekend. Obama has played a round of golf nearly every day, and the first family has spent much of the time at a Kailua Beach vacation rental.
Star-Advertiser reporter Gary T. Kubota contributed to this report.