WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force Academy sent its 2020 graduates into the ranks six weeks early on Saturday — a move the military hasn't done since World War II — as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the nation.
The ceremony for the nearly 1,000 cadets took place on the academy grounds in the military-rich town of Colorado Springs with guests and families watching virtually in order to comply with social distancing guidelines.
"When you arrived in 2016 or so, you knew your graduation day would be memorable, but did you imagine that your commencement would take place in mid-April, or that each of us would have a face mask at the ready or that you would march a Covid compliant 8 feet apart on the Terrazzo, or for that matter, that commissioning into the Space Force would be an option," Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett posed to the graduating class.
"Today, you are living history," she added.
Of the graduating cadets, 86 commissioned for the first time into the U.S. Space Force. Vice President Mike Pence was on hand to deliver the commencement address.
"You're the elite. You stepped forward to serve your nation. You endured the rigors of training here at the Air Force Academy, and you've done so under some of the most difficult circumstances in the history of this storied institution," Pence said referencing the coronavirus outbreak.
"America is being tested. And while there are signs that we're making progress and slowing the spread as we stand here today more than 700,000 Americans have contracted the coronavirus and tragically, more than 37,000 of our countrymen have lost their lives," he added. "But as each of you has shown in your time here, and as the American people always show in challenging times -- when hardship comes, Americans come together."
Following the commencement address, U.S. Air Force General John "Jay" Raymond, the first chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force, asked the first 86 cadets to raise their right hands and take the oath. The remaining cadets stood and took their oath from U.S. Air Force General David Goldfein, chief of staff of the Air Force.
Per tradition, the nation's newly-minted officers threw their caps towards the sky as U.S. Air Force Thunderbird jets flew over.
President Donald Trump first floated the Space Force idea as a part of his national security strategy on March 13, 2018. At the time, the president described how he had originally coined the term as a joke, while discussing U.S. government spending and private investment in space.
"Space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea," Trump told an audience of service members at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. "We may even have a Space Force, develop another one, Space Force. We have the Air Force, we'll have the Space Force."
Trump then directed the Pentagon to immediately begin the creation of the new branch.
"I am hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces," Trump said in June 2018 before asking Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to see the directive through.
"Our destiny beyond the Earth is not only a matter of national identity but a matter of national security," Trump said.
In August, Pence announced the Pentagon's detailed plan for Trump's vision of a Space Force.
Currently, the U.S. Air Force manages the space domain through the Space Command. Space Force will stand as a separate branch alongside the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. However, the newest branch is expected to be akin to the structure of the Marine Corps, which is a component of the U.S. Department of the Navy but has separate representation on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The new sister service branch will be represented on the Joint Chiefs and overseen by an Air Force undersecretary for space.