Not even a pandemic can ground these US Air Force Academy graduates.
Vice President Mike Pence presided over a hushed and somber commencement for 967 departing seniors at the academy in Colorado Springs, Col., on Saturday — in a ceremony where guests were barred and seats for the graduates were spaced eight feet apart to keep class members from spreading COVID-19.
“We gather at a time of national crisis,” Pence told the cadets on the eerily quiet field, in a speech broken only by muted applause from their gloved hands. “The American people have risen to the challenge. They, like you, have met this moment with courage, resilience and strength.”
The graduates include the first cadets to be commissioned into the U.S. Space Force, the new military branch created by President Trump five months ago.
The seniors finished their final weeks of classes in isolation on campus, as their 3,000 classmates were sent home to complete their courses online.
Their graduation ceremony was relocated from Falcon Stadium, its traditional home, to the Terrazzo, the grassy parade ground at the center of campus.
Mounds of snow were piled at the margins of the field and heaped beneath retired fighter jets parked at the quadrangle’s corners.
Air Force cadets celebrating their graduation.Getty Images
Pence walked alone to a small stage, offering salutes – but not handshakes – to academy officials on the dais.
The graduates, wearing their parade dress uniforms but not protective masks, marched onto the field in six long columns spaced wide apart.
They could not receive their diplomas directly, and their names were not announced during the truncated ceremony. Instead, they remained in place on the wide field to take their oaths as officers.
There they indulged in less than one minute of celebration – whooping, shouting, and tossing their white hats in the air as a formation of eight F-16 Fighting Falcons soared overhead. But each remained within the boxes that had been painted on the grass to keep them separated.
They tied white face masks over their mouths and noses before marching off.
“Today America is being tested,” Pence told the cadets. “But when hardship comes, Americans come together.”