In what has become a local tradition, service members and their Families gathered for a culinary and cultural celebration as Washington, D.C.’s, Arena Stage hosted its seventh annual military Thanksgiving Friday.

Arena Stage partnered with USO-Metro to invite approximately 200 members of the local military community for a catered three-course meal and a performance of the classic Broadway musical “The Pajama Game.”

They were joined by special guests including District of Columbia Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and retired Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, president and chief executive officer, Association of the United States Army.

“As a resident theater here in this community, a big presence here is the military, and we’re aware, especially at this time of year, what sacrifice the military makes along with their Families,” said Arena Stage Executive Director Edgar Dobie. “We wanted to share a meal in a kind of family setting, and share what it is that we do here and show how thankful we all are for their sacrifices.”

The evening began with a cocktail reception for which The U.S. Army Strings provided a musical backdrop. Staff Sgt. Christopher Rettig of The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” sang the national anthem after the presentation of colors.

“For us, it’s just a way to give back to people who are giving so much, to show our gratitude for everything that they’ve done,” Rettig said.

Throughout the evening, speakers repeatedly underscored similar themes of thankfulness and appreciation.

“I am the first to say as a member of Congress, there is never enough applause, there is never enough thanks for what you do for our country today,” Norton told the service members and Families in attendance. “You carry all of us on your backs.”

She extended a special welcome to those service members who were away from their loved ones during the holiday.

“I recognize that many of our military here tonight are without a Family member,” Norton said. “Even though you’re far from home and you had to have Thanksgiving far from home, that’s why tonight is so important.”

In his keynote speech, Ham noted that, while the military community may receive messages of gratitude on a regular basis that sentiment should ring especially true at Thanksgiving.

“Thanks for your service,” he said. “We hear it all the time, and sometimes it seems like just a polite custom without any substance and meaning, without any feeling from the heart. But not today as we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, a uniquely American holiday where we Americans take brief pause from the daily rush of events to consider the blessings bestowed upon us, our families and our country.”

Army Sgt. Maj. Dewayne Blackmon, a Fort Myer resident currently serving as an operations sergeant major at the Pentagon, said the military Thanksgiving offered his Family a lively way to spend time together while they were gathered for the holiday.

“We wanted to do something as a Family, and we thought what better way than to come out to D.C. and have dinner and then enjoy a play with the service members and Families and friends (who) are here,” he said. “They put on a phenomenal meal. Everything here has just been fabulous.”

Among the Family members who joined Blackmon at Arena Stage was his daughter Denise, a second year cadet at the United States Military Academy.

“Coming down here to see my Family means a lot, because up until a few years ago, cadets weren’t allowed to go home until after Christmas,” she said. “Coming to this play and witnessing this event that recognizes our service members means a lot towards what I’m going to be doing in the future.”

The Blackmons were joined by Denise’s best friend and West Point classmate, cadet Deanna Edgar, who was unable to spend Thanksgiving with her family back home in Connecticut this year.

“If I got stuck at West Point, I’d probably be sitting there doing a lot of homework,” she remarked. “It means a lot to be invited by a family to come down. Thanksgiving is a lot about families so to be invited to share it with them is pretty special.”

Pentagram staff photojournalist Francis Chung can be reached at fchung@dcmilitary.com.