The quiet graduation Saturday of the quarantined Air Force Academy Class of 2020 allowed for moments that would have been drowned out in years past amid raucous celebration to ring loudly across the campus:
The applause of a lone officer clapping for the cadets. The shrill whistle of a passing hummingbird. The call of a single cadet saying, “I love you mom and dad,” to parents kept away by the coronavirus.
At 8-foot intervals, the graduates took it all in — 967 new lieutenants secluded, yet together.
“It was surreal,” said new 2nd Lt. Lauren Ramey of Searcy, Ark., as she donned a mask that hid her smile of accomplishment.
Ramey and the seniors stayed at the academy after their classmates departed for online classes at home in March. They lived in isolation on the 18,500-acre campus for weeks, and endured the deaths by presumed suicide of two fellow seniors during that time.
Vice President Mike Pence, who delivered remarks in person after vetoing a plan to address the Class of 2020 by video conference, summed up a time that brought the first early graduation to a service academy since World War II.
“You are an inspiration to every American and America is being tested,” he said.
The cadets, including the first lieutenants to enter the new Space Force, were sworn in six weeks early. The need to keep cadets apart moved the ceremony from Falcon Stadium to the heart of the campus. Graduation crowds in recent years have topped 30,000. The Class of 2020 got a few dozen.
With 700,000 Americans sickened by coronavirus and 37,000 dead, a melancholy hung over much of the ceremony.
But the Class of 2020’s graduation “will forever be remembered as a defining moment in academy history,” said school Superintendent Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria .
Over 48 hours, these seniors managed to send 3,000 freshmen, sophomores and juniors home, equipped to take their classes on the internet.
At a campus so close-knit that most meals since the 1950s have been shared family-style, they lived on takeout alone in usually-crowded dorm rooms.
The academy, meanwhile, didn’t let up on its legendary academic rigor. Instead, the seniors had to cram in a full semester of work while cutting six weeks from the schedule.
Pence said the achievements of the seniors are mirrored across the nation where a virus has upended lives and left millions in hardship and isolation unprecedented in American history.
“When hardship comes, Americans come together — we rise to the challenge,” Pence said. “And the courage, and the compassion, and the generosity of the Americans you will defend are shining through every day,” he said.
More than half of the graduates are headed to pilot training and 86 were sworn into the Space Force. Formed in December in response to rising threats to American satellites, the service had just two members before the graduating cadets reinforced its ranks.
“You will build this service from the ground up,” said Gen. Jay Raymond, the Space Force’s chief of staff and sole officer before the cadets were sworn in.
Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett told the cadets that their circumstances put them in a rare position.
“Today, you are living history,” she said.
It was a lot for the cadets to take in as they sat 8 feet apart.
They wanted to celebrate, but the dangers faced by their families at home and the recent losses from their ranks hung like the gray clouds overhead.
“It’s heavy on the hearts of many of us,” explained 2nd Lt. Katie Scheibner of Woodbury, Minn.
During the Air Force song at the end of the graduation, the order was given. “Discard hats.”
The cadets complied and launched their caps into the air just as the Air Force Thunderbirds' F-16 fighters arrived, like the Class of 2020, a bit early.
As the hats rained down, the cadets seemed to stop in midcelebration, glued to their 8-foot intervals.
Ramey said she and her classmates are proud and they look forward to a future that remains undimmed.
“It didn’t take away from the excitement of this moment,” she said.
But, unlike years past, the Class of 2020 didn’t light cigars and head for the pleasures of Tejon Street to mark the end of four years of grueling work.
Instead, they tied on face masks and got ready for more work ahead.
“We will protect the most vulnerable and we will heal our land,” Pence told them.
“The American people are doing their duty, now comes your turn to do yours.”