More than 1,000 U.S. Air Force Academy cadets and their loved ones gathered in Falcon Stadium Wednesday for a graduation ceremony that marked the end of a trying year for the senior class and the beginning of the school’s post-pandemic return to normalcy.

“The past year has arguably been the most trying time in our history,” said Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, superintendent of the academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “This class has shown that they were more than equal to the task.”

USAFA’s 63rd graduating class finished their senior year under conditions unlike any other in recent history. The coronavirus pandemic fundamentally changed the collegiate experience, from sending students home last spring to finish classes online, to limitations on how courses and clubs could meet and changes to the school calendar itself.

The graduates are becoming second lieutenants as the Pentagon looks to focus on Cold War-style competition with Russia, China and others and scale back the counterterrorism fight that has engulfed the military for the past 20 years. The new officers are entering a military trying to modernize its weapons and policies alike to keep up with social and technological change.

“You are joining the long blue line during an era of transformation,” acting Air Force Secretary John Roth said. “This is your chance to build on a legacy of innovation steeped in heritage.”

It’s the 76th year of peace between world powers after World War II, but the system is under stress, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told graduates: “Each of you are going to play an important role in keeping the peace.”

Of the 1,216 young adults inducted into the academy in 2017, 1,019 made it across the finish line this week. They join the group of nearly 54,000 USAFA graduates since 1959.

At 72 percent men and 28 percent women, the gender breakdown is nearly the same as last year’s graduating class, according to data provided by the academy. The school has a similar percentage of minority graduates, 30 percent, as well. They include 102 Hispanic, 65 multiracial, 58 Asian, 54 Black, seven Pacific Islander, and four Native American cadets.

Fifteen international graduates represent 14 countries: Cameroon, Georgia, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, Romania, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Thailand and Tunisia. They bring the total number of foreign grads to 424 in school history.

More than 40 percent could qualify as pilots, USAFA said. Of the nearly 460 graduates headed for rated career fields, about 400 are assigned as pilots, 38 as drone operators, 12 as combat systems officers, and nine as air battle managers. Some 420 people in non-rated careers are largely assigned to operations, acquisition and logistics jobs.

In the school’s second year of supplying guardians to the Space Force, 112 cadets will go to the military’s newest service. That’s a slight jump from last year’s class, when nearly 90 second lieutenants became that service’s first company-grade officers. About 70 of this year’s graduates will work in space operations, and another 40 will join the acquisition workforce.

Twelve students are cross-commissioning into the Army, Navy or Marine Corps.

Graduation signaled a return to more normal order for end-of-year celebrations at the service academy. Last April marked the first time one of the military schools graduated a class early since World War II, after sending all but the seniors home and holding the ceremony in the middle of campus rather than in Falcon Stadium to allow for social distancing.

This year, the academy asked guests to sit together in assigned seats with space between each group. The ceremony was closed to the general public, but to ease COVID-19 precautions as vaccinations increase and case counts drop, USAFA allowed each student to invite eight guests.

It’s the first time since May 2019 that family and friends were allowed to attend the festivities in person.

“Thank God, we can gather,” said Col. Julian Gaither, the school’s chaplain.

Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.

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