Vice President Mike Pence addressed the cadets in person, but parents and others were limited to watching the ceremony online.
Speaking to a class of nearly 1,000 graduating cadets spaced precisely eight feet apart on the U.S. Air Force Academy's parade field, Vice President Mike Pence said the nation looks to the military for confidence during times of strife.
"And on this day, you'll also inspire confidence that we will prevail against the invisible enemy in our time as well," Pence said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic ravaging the United States.
The virus kept the 967 cadets socially distant in their neatly arranged grid. It also prevented family or friends from attending and led the Air Force to hold the ceremony six weeks ahead of schedule.
With visitors absent, more than 16,000 people watched the event stream live from the Academy's YouTube page, filling the video with comments of praise for particular cadets. Pence had originally planned to provide his commencement address over video for the occasion, but decided a few days before the event to attend in person.
"I don't know what it's like to sit in that chair you're sitting in or to wear that uniform," Pence said. "But I am the proud father of a United States Marine and the father-in-law of a Naval Academy graduate. So, I can testify first hand, I know just how your parents are feeling right now, and they couldn't be more proud."
He was joined on stage by other top Air Force brass, including Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and the first Chief of Space Operations, Gen. John Raymond. Raymond later swore in the first Air Force Academy cadets to be commissioned directly into the newly established Space Force.
Speakers addressed April 18th as a historic day in American aviation. Saturday marked the 78th anniversary of the World War II Pacific air combat mission known as Doolittle's Raid on Tokyo, as well as one day after the 50th anniversary of Apollo 13's safe return to Earth after near disaster.
"78 years ago, the 'raiders' cemented the very notion of joint air power," Gen. Goldfein said. "Today, we cement the notion of joint air and space power. Because just as the Navy and the Marine Corps are our nation's naval services, we are our nation's aerospace services. We own the high ground."
The coronavirus began affecting life at the Academy in mid-March by first closing the popular tourist attraction to visitors. Soon after came the decision to send home underclassmen cadets, leaving just seniors on the Academy grounds.
Officials put in place strict social distancing guidelines for the seniors, even moving the cadets to different dorm rooms to more effectively spread out the remaining student body. Social gatherings were prohibited; violators had to do tough physical conditioning as punishment.
The guidelines were reassessed after two cadets died in three days during the last week of March. The deaths were considered suspected suicides. The news was especially hard because the entire Air Force had issued a one day stand-down last year to discuss the rising problem of airmen suicides. The academy declined a request for an interview about the cadet deaths.
Leadership quickly moved to ease the guidelines, removing the exercise punishments and allowing for small gatherings.
"We've had barbecues," said senior cadet Ashley Nimmo. "I've seen people going on runs together and working out together. Just because we're social distancing does not mean we're social isolating."
A First For Space
Nimmo is one of 86 cadets from the class of 2020 being sent into the Space Force. For Nimmo, the distinction takes on an added dimension. Her great-grandfather, Harley Nimmo, was among the first soldiers to transition into the Air Force when it was created out of the Army Air Corps in 1947.
"Myself being fifth generation military, coming from a long family of service, it's really exciting to be following in that kind of legacy of standing up a brand new branch," Nimmo said.
For cadet Yann Wollman, also commissioning into the Space Force, it means joining what he described as the "world's largest startup corporation." As an acquisitions officer, he wants to help push innovation in the newest military branch through partnerships with the private sector.
Wollman said he has been trying to see the bright side of what the coronavirus and early dismissal from the Academy have brought to his military education. These circumstances have meant helping restructure the educational experience for the lower classes, keeping in touch with those cadets to make sure their needs are met. He called it a phenomenal leadership experience.
"Disruptive change and uncertain situations (are) definitely something that I'm very fond of and love kind of digging into," Wollman said.
Cadets didn't seem inclined to talk about the historic nature of what amounted to a private graduation, conducted with few spectators and no friends and family. Instead, given that many colleges, including the US Naval Academy have canceled graduations, they simply seemed pleased to have a ceremony at all.
And at the end, one piece of Academy tradition remained intact: graduates threw their hats in the air while the Air Force demonstration squadron known as the Thunderbirds roared across the sky overhead. The newly sworn-in 2nd Lieutenants then mostly maintained proper social distancing, though some could not help but embrace.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.