President Barack Obama took time out of a quiet Christmas with family, friends and basketball to greet servicemen and women during their Christmas dinner on the Marine Corps Base Hawaii yesterday afternoon.
The president and first lady Michelle Obama posed for pictures, shook hands, hugged children and picked up babies. The president even joked about his busted lip.
"I don’t think he left before he got a chance to shake hands with everyone who was there," said Maj. Alan Crouch, the public affairs officer for the base. "He seemed appreciative of the service members and family members. It seemed like he got a lot out of it, as well."
The unannounced visit to Anderson Hall happened at about 3:30 p.m. but may not have been much of a surprise. Obama visited with service members at the same dining hall at the same base at about the same times during his last two vacations in Hawaii.
About 200 service members and their families got to meet the president and first lady.
Marines from Kaneohe were part of the surge in Afghanistan ordered by Obama last year. About 1,400 Marines—the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment and a helicopter squadron—deployed to Helmand province in 2009. Some of the Marines went directly from Iraq to Afghanistan to be part of the surge.
Marines and sailors from the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Regiment just returned from Afghanistan earlier this month.
The 3rd Battalion, which left Hawaii in May, lost at least three Marines during the seven-month deployment in the Nawa district.
The base’s three infantry battalions rotate to southern Afghanistan. The 2nd Battalion is back in Helmand.
The president and his wife spent more than an hour shaking hands and hugging service members who had arrived for a Christmas dinner of prime rib, turkey, ham, stuffing, potatoes, vegetables, salad, pie, pastries and soft-serve ice cream.
"Hey, guys, merry Christmas. How are you?" the president asked Lisa Lao, 21, and Maha Lao, 23, sitting at a booth with their two children.
Obama picked up 3-month-old Jensen Lao and bounced him a couple of times.
"Merry Christmas, Mr. President," one little boy called out.
"Did you get everything you wanted?" Obama asked a little girl. She showed him a new bracelet and the president pointed to Michelle Obama, who also had a new bracelet, and the first lady and the little girl compared bracelets.
With U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan, Iraq and other outposts around the world, the Obamas also used the president’s weekly radio and Internet address to encourage Americans to find ways to support service members during the holiday season.
"Let’s all remind them this holiday season that we’re thinking of them, and that America will forever be here for them, just as they’ve been there for us," the president said.
Mrs. Obama, who has made working with military families one of her priorities as first lady, said Americans don’t need to be experts in military life to give back to those who serve their country. She urged the public to reach out through their schools and churches, or volunteer with organizations that support military families.
"Anybody can send a care package or prepaid calling card to the front lines, or give what’s sometimes the most important gift of all: simply saying thank you," Mrs. Obama said.
As the president moved down a dining table, he encountered a large man, taller than the president, wearing a Dallas Cowboys T-shirt.
"We’ve got to get you on the court," Obama quipped. "I will not get an elbow in the lip if we play with this guy."
Alan Rogers, a chaplain at the base; his wife, Lisa; daughters Sarah and Laurin; and sons John and Jackson spent several minutes talking with the president and first lady about sports, school and another son—Lance Cpl. Jacob Rogers, now serving in Afghanistan.
"It was very affirming," said Sarah Rogers. "The first family recognizes all the sacrafices we make as a military family. They took the time to talk to us about our lives and our brother in Afghanistan."
The public appearance contrasts with the rest of the president’s Christmas Day, spent at a luxurious oceanfront home in Kailua with his wife and daughters, Malia and Sasha. The first family celebrated Christmas with a small circle of friends and family, including some of Obama’s childhood friends and the president’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who lives here on Oahu, the island where Obama was born and spent much of his childhood.
The Obamas dined on steak, roasted potatoes, green beans and pie, and the sports-obsessed president got a chance to relax and watch some basketball.
The president’s Christmas has been far quieter than last year’s holiday, when a 23-year-old Nigerian man allegedly attempted to blow up a plane bound for Detroit. The incident raised questions about the nation’s terror readiness and consumed the rest of Obama’s vacation.
Thus far, Obama’s excursions in Hawaii have been mostly to the gym and golf course, although he skipped the gym yesterday morning. On Christmas Eve, he went to the beach with his daughters.