May 30, 2013 Updated: May 30, 2013 at 10:50 am
Beneath a rousing flyover of decades-old warbirds, 1,024 newly commissioned second lieutenants graduated Wednesday from the Air Force Academy - each receiving a diploma and a call to "serve with integrity."
Cadets puffed on stogies and clutched each other as thousands of friends and families cheered at Falcon Stadium under skies that threatened - but only briefly delivered a bit of - rain and hail.
"You're done - that's probably the best thing in the world," said Kenn Boechler, 21, puffing on a cigar. "It's just like in the pictures."
Now the work begins.
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, in one of his last acts as the Air Force's top civilian, implored the cadets to tackle the service's many challenges, including a lingering war, fiscal uncertainty and the "scourge" of pervasive sexual assaults - during the 21/2 hour ceremony.
On the latter issue, Donley asked this class to "serve with integrity, and by example - to lead, to say and to do what is right for our Air Force."
One sign of the times revealed itself the moment the graduates tossed their caps.
Absent was the Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team - a symbol of combat prowess and aerial ability that usually caps each ceremony. The F-16 fighters remained grounded amid $41 billion in Pentagon-wide automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
Several World War II-era planes rumbled above Falcon Stadium in their place, provided by two nonprofit organizations - one in Colorado Springs, another in Texas.
Donley lamented that the cuts "seriously undermine" readiness, and he reminded cadets that they face a leaner Air Force than the one they may have imagined.
Indeed, much has changed since 2009, when the cadets entered Jack's Valley as "doolies."
When they arrived in 2009, the H1N1 swine flu was a constant concern - sickening many during their first days at the academy. Back then, the war in Iraq raged, and Osama bin Laden was alive. Far fewer headlines centered on drone warfare or cyberspace operations.
But the war in Iraq ended in 2011, and combat missions in Afghanistan are slated to conclude at the end of 2014.
Now, military leaders bemoan the Pentagon's budget situation - about $1 trillion in possible cuts to the Defense Department's budget over the next decade.
Those cuts have grounded 12 combat squadrons - though pilots still dominated the academy's graduate ranks.
Slightly less than half of the graduates - 443 men and women - plan to attend pilot training, while 10 expect to operate drones. Puffing a cigar, Alexios Gaurilos, 22, acknowledged concern for his chosen profession: pilot.
But that mattered little Wednesday. With a weary grin, he mused about suffering from an adrenaline crash.
"It's like that - but after a four-year adrenaline dump," Gaurilos said, chuckling. "I've been waiting for this since I was 5."
This class entered an evolving military. Nearly 21 percent of the graduates were women entering a military that no longer bans women from serving in combat.
They also enter an Air Force facing withering criticism for its response to sexual assaults - a burgeoning problem that led President Barack Obama to personally rebuke military leaders for their handling of the issue.
A report in May found there may have been as many as 26,000 sexual assaults in the military last year - an increase from 19,000 in 2011, the Associated Press reported. Most assaults went unreported, the report found. The number of reported assaults rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012.
"Today, the character of our Air Force is being questioned by some," Donley said. "Our reputation is at risk from irresponsible and even criminal behavior within our ranks."
Several cadets said they felt safe entering the military - a feeling they attributed to the camaraderie and support found in the academy's cadet squadrons. And Donley acknowledged that Wednesday's graduates have been schooled in the military's programs to prevent sex assaults.
"But policies and initiatives are not enough," Donley said. "This is your Air Force, and changing behavior depends on changing at every level the command climate and social culture in which we operate and live, both on and off duty."
Contact Jakob Rodgers: 476-1654