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Obama makes Christmas call to sailor

President Obama shakes hands with Air Force personnel at Hickam Air Force Base after arriving in Hawaii on Thursday.
President Obama shakes hands with Air Force personnel at Hickam Air Force Base after arriving in Hawaii on Thursday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama calls Navy corpsman Francis Nicola at sea to wish him merry Christmas
  • Nicola is on board the USS Rentz in the Arabian Gulf
  • His commanding officer submitted his name as candidate for presidential call
  • Nicola says he invited Obama for burgers and basketball when the Rentz gets home

Honolulu, Hawaii (CNN) -- U.S. Navy hospital corpsman Francis Nicola received a unique Christmas gift Thursday: a phone call from his commander in chief.

President Obama called Nicola, currently deployed in the Arabian Gulf, to extend a personal holiday greeting, according to a Navy spokesman.

Nicola has served on the guided-missile frigate USS Rentz for one year. The Rentz is on an extended eight-month deployment, Public Affairs Officer Corey Barker noted in a statement.

"It was a great honor," Nicola said. "The president passed his personal thanks to me and to the crew for our service over the holidays."

Obama "started the conversation off asking about my wife and my son Anthony," he added. "He then went on to express his thoughts on being deployed away from them during the holiday period and hoped for my safe return to them in the coming months."

Video: Obama family in Hawaii
Video: Obama's Christmas message
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The president's decision to call Nicola was the result of a submission by Nicola's commanding officer.

"Petty Officer Nicola's performance has been nothing short of flawless," said Cmdr. Jeff Miller, the Rentz's commanding officer. "He quickly earned my trust [and] confidence."

Nicola said he invited Obama "for a day of burgers and basketball on the pier in San Diego," the Rentz's home port. Obama said he "would try to take us up on that offer," Nicola noted.

Nicola, who previously served on the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, is the senior medical representative for over 220 crew members on the Rentz, Barker said. His duties include routine patient care and trauma response.

Presidents have traditionally called members of the military during the holiday season. Obama told reporters Thursday that he was planning to call "a few" service members this year "and wish them merry Christmas and to thank them for their extraordinary service."