Jubilant, overjoyed and ecstatic, more than 1,000 cadets crossed the stage at the Air Force Academy's Falcon Stadium on Wednesday as part of the school's 63rd graduating class.

After a somber ceremony last year with no onlookers, 2021's freshly minted second lieutenants’ hugs, smiles and salutes were passionate and powerful as family and friends screamed, waved and cheered from the stands.

Last year's April graduation was moved from the football stadium to the terrazzo so cadets could maintain 8 feet of social distancing. Guests weren’t allowed, and it was the first time since World War II that cadets were allowed to graduate early from a federal military academy.

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For the Class of 2021, anyone fully vaccinated could be mask-free at graduation.

“The fact that we are able to come together today … is a testament of the tireless dedication, the courage and the expertise of our medical professionals, researchers, first responders and everyone who has been on the front lines battling the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, the school's superintendent, told the Falcon Stadium crowd.

“Right here at our academy, we have put the amazing brain power of our faculty, staff and medics to work on overcoming one of the most difficult challenges in our history, and the results have been astounding. … But most of all, I am proud of our cadets and how they were able to rise to the occasion. They have shown they are exactly the kinds of officers we need to elevate America’s standing.”

Clark had a message directly for the graduates.

“If you only take one thing away from the countless hours of hard work, sweat and tears that have gone into your academy experience, make it this: Strive to live your lives as leaders of character and remember it is a journey, not a destination."

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Clark mentioned three markers to guide second lieutenants throughout their career.

“First, a leader of character is someone who lives honorably. Next, we must lift others to be their best possible selves. Finally, elevate performance toward a common and noble purpose."

The new officers had a lot of positive things to say about their time at the academy and in Colorado.

Lt. Sara Johnson of Nampa, Idaho, loved her time at the academy and is headed in intelligence school.

“It has been the best experience and best decision of my life,” she said.

Lt. Julia Rochester of Philadelphia is the third sibling in her family to attend the academy. Her parents and sister plan to stay in town for a bit of sightseeing.

Rochester, who will soon be working as a recruiter for the Air Force Academy, said, “I’ll miss my friends the most.”

Sam Yagoda of Los Angeles is headed to pilot training.

“I’m excited to be serving the nation and doing something bigger than myself,” Yagoda said. “The last four years have been hard but it was well worth it.”

The Air Force Academy also trains officers for allied nations, including Sri Lanka's Kavindu Jayawardana, who said he enjoyed Colorado scenery, cliff jumping and his years at the academy. He is headed back home to serve in Sri Lanka's air force.

Dawn Clary, mother of graduate Ryan Clary from Cave Creek, Ariz., said she has built a lot of positive relationships with fellow academy parents. She basked in her son's accomplishments Wednesday.

“We’re just really proud, we’re excited for his new career in security forces, and he’s actually going to be stationed in Cheyenne (Wyoming),” Dawn Clary said.

The Class of 2021 included 1,019 students from 15 countries including the United States, Cameroon, Georgia, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Romania, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Thailand and Tunisia. The class included 731 men and 288 women. Minorities made up 29% of the student population. The vast majority of the new officers will be part of the Air Force, but 112 are going to Space Force, five to the Marines, four to the Navy and three to the Army.

Acting Air Force Secretary John P. Roth remarked on how the number of women at the academy continues to grow.

“Class of 2021, you are the leaders people rely on to look to the future,” Roth said. “You will be called on to imagine unthinkable threats, to face untold challenges and to overcome uncharted adversity."

“We need leaders with character to stand up for what is right and lead with integrity. We need leaders with talent to outmaneuver, outcompete and defeat our adversaries no matter the domain, air, space, (or) cyber.

“We need leaders who have courage to defend our nation, uphold our constitutional values and protect our American way of life. As I look across this field, I know that we have the right leaders to carry us into the future.”

Keynote speaker Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also talked about the Constitution and the importance of the oath of office required of officers.

“Remember the message of your oath, the message of what we stand for and a message of why we fight,” Milley said.

“The ideas that’s in this Constitution, that’s propelled us through our darkest days as a nation, all it says is that in this country … no matter who you are, every single one of us is an American and every single one of us is born free and equal.”

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