WASHINGTON — There are few places where an American Idol winner plays fourth fiddle, and rock superstar Jon Bon Jovi is just a warm-up act on a side stage.
But at the Commander-In-Chief’s Ball, hundreds of military men and women and their dates held their positions for hours, waiting anxiously for the biggest star of the day: President Barack Obama.
When the president emerged waving from a giant backdrop lit with stars and stripes, the troops, including 300 invited wounded warriors from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and their families, erupted in jubilation. Obama shook hands with the senior enlisted advisers of the five services before taking the podium, pledging to work hard for the military and their families, while continuing his call for national unity and service.
"Every single day that I am in the White House, I will try to serve you as well as you are serving the United States of America," the president said.
Obama called the day a "celebration of our military and our military families," noting to a big cheer that first lady Michelle Obama already has begun working with military families.
"Every time a servicemember deploys, there’s an empty seat at the table back home and a family that has to bear an extra burden," said Obama.
"So tonight we celebrate, but tomorrow we work together."
The event was one of 10 official balls the president attended Tuesday night, stopping just long enough at each to deliver a brief speech and take a turn on the dance floor. At this ball, two sergeants brought on stage cut into the first couple for a special dance of their own.
Michelle Obama planted a strong kiss on the cheek of Marine Sgt. Elidio Guillen of Madera, Calif., while Sgt. Margaret Herrera, from San Antonio, danced with the president, drawing up her shoulders and laughing sheepishly as they talked and swayed and the crowd cheered them on.
Three Navy wives whose husbands are deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were invited to the ball.
Rebecca Schmitt is married to Lt. Richard Schmitt, who is at Camp Dubbs, near Kabul, Afghanistan. Jodi Hofmann’s husband, Cmdr. Mark Hofmann, volunteered for an individual augmentation assignment in Baghdad, and Kate Nesbitt’s husband, Lt. Cmdr. Ian Nesbitt, is also serving as an individual augmentee in Iraq.
"42 days to go!" Hofmann said.
All three looked stunning in formal gowns, shoes and accessories donated by "Operation Cinderella-Fella," a project of the nonprofit America’s Heroes of Freedom.
"We’re just thrilled that we could come," said Schmitt. "I hope this brings our entire country together. ... There is a war going on. It keeps you grounded."
For one night, they had each other, but Nesbitt had one message for her husband: "Wish you were here," she said. "We don’t have dance partners!"
Comedian George Lopez served as master of ceremonies, and promptly joked that one of Obama’s first orders of duty would be to end the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy for gays in the military.
"So tonight, feel free to dance with anyone you like!" he quipped, drawing a mix of nervous chuckles and a few cheers.
But when he introduced the color guard to the presidential stage, the crowd erupted and cell phones and cameras were thrust into the air, lighting the room like a legion of fireflies.
Vice President Joe Biden warmed up the eager crowd, giving a rousing speech. Biden recently returned from a tour of the Middle East and Central Asia.
"I’ve been everywhere that you’ve been," he said, "… and I’ve been astounded. We’re the only [military] in the world that gives such incredible responsibility to two-stripers."
Biden also delivered the line of the night. Speaking via satellite with troops in Kirkuk, Iraq, he promised to make a return visit.
"Hopefully, by the time I get back, which will be pretty soon, we’ll bring a whole lot of you home."
And the crowd went wild.