April 19 (UPI) — Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary Mike Esper and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, addressed the Air Force Academy’s first virtual graduation Saturday.
Esper and Milley addressed the graduating cadets remotely from the Pentagon, but Pence traveled to Colorado Springs to speak to cadets in person.
Family and friends were not allowed to attend the event due to social distancing guidelines guidelines necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I know we gather at a time of great challenge in the life of our nation, and you all here in the pursuit of your commission and the service of this nation have been through a lot. And while we don’t quite look like the usual graduation at the Air Force Academy, let me tell you this is an awesome sight,” said Pence, who heads the White House’s coronavirus task force.
The event was moved up several weeks from its original date in May, and relocated from Falcon Stadium to a larger venue to allow more space for social distancing for the 984 cadets.
The newly graduated cadets will commission as second lieutenants, and 90 will enter the United States’ new Space Force.
President Donald Trump said Friday that he supported Pence’s decision to appear at the ceremony, and also said he plans to speak at a socially distanced commencement at the U.S. Military Academy next month.
Pence encouraged the graduates to rise to address the difficulties presented by the pandemic.
“America is being tested,” Pence said. “But as each of you has shown, and as Americans always shows in challenging times, when hardship comes, Americans come together. We rise to the challenge.”
Milley also directly referenced the ongoing pandemic in remarks.
“Your target is indeed in sight,” Milley said, “but your journey is just beginning. You will serve your country in a time of incredible challenge and increased complexity in the global strategic environment.”
The Thunderbirds flew over the ceremony as the graduates tossed their hats in keeping with an Air Force Academy tradition — but following cheers of celebration, the graduates put masks over their faces.