Cadets who crossed the stage at the Air Force Academy's graduation Wednesday will get the chance to do more than pilot airplanes or lead airmen in battle, Vice President Joe Biden told a crowd of 30,000 at the school.
"You'll be asked like few generations before you to shape a new history - and I mean that literally, a new history - for your country," Biden said.
Under sunny skies, the academy graduated 1,046 cadets in a nearly four-hour ceremony that included Biden's 30-minute speech and a flyover by the Air Force Thunderbirds.
Biden used his speech to say the world is full of unprecedented peril and opportunity that young leaders will be asked to handle.
"Things are changing, whether you like it or not, and they are changing in significant ways, setting a course for a generation," he said. "We're at a moment in our nation's history when unstable countries around the world are seeking nuclear weapons and methods to deliver them."
He received spontaneous applause just three times, once for making fun of his boss, President Barack Obama, after wind knocked over a teleprompter screen.
"What am I going to tell the president when I tell him his teleprompter is broken," Biden joked, hitting a theme that has been fodder for conservative talk shows. "What will he do then?"
After the ceremony, cadets admitted they were so caught up in the thrill of graduation they could hardly remember what was said. But they won't forget what the day means to them.
"This is the greatest moment of my life by far," said newly minted 2nd Lt. Joseph Brock.
"I thought this day would never come."
The Air Force Academy is academically one of the toughest schools in the nation, touted as second nationally in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, according to rankings compiled by U.S. News and World Report.
Sitting in the stands, parents beamed with pride as they roared for the new officers.
Four generations of the Culpepper family - some coming from as far as Alaska - showed support for their grandson, cousin, brother and son Elijah.
The new officer used to be satisfied playing with his fishing pole, his mother, Nancy, said. Now, he's found new toys to play with, namely fighter jets.
"It's a little scary for a mommy," Nancy said of the 23-year-old who is pilot-training bound. "Couldn't he pick something a little closer to the ground?"
Newly commissioned 2nd Lt. Aaron Nelson, a 22-year-old from Wisconsin, represents the third generation of his family to graduate from the same squadron at the Air Force Academy. Before him came men who tossed their white hats in the air as the graduating classes of 1967 and 1994.
"I think he's the best of us," uncle Vincent Nelson said. "He's the younger generation. He has everything ahead of him."
Adam Otton didn't think he'd ever graduate from the academy. The 22-year-old almost packed his bags after completing his freshman year.
Parachuting kept him in uniform.
"I can't image feeling any better," he said, his blue eyes sparkling as he tucked the box enclosing his diploma under his arm. "I feel excellent."
Wrapping up what seemed like endless rounds of military training and tough bookwork seemed surreal for many cadets.
"It's amazing, after four years, to know we're done," said 2nd Lt. Krystle Pope.