During his commencement address to the 921 cadets about to graduate as 2nd Lieutenants in the U.S. Air and Space Forces, U.S. President Joe Biden referenced the landscape they had called home for the previous four years.
"As you leave these mountains, where the air is rare, you are going to take with you the confidence that your years have prepared you for whatever is ahead," Biden said.
In addition to the institution's already daunting athletic and academic requirements, the U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2023 had faced down the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in their freshman year and dominated the first half of their college experience. That experience reached its culmination Thursday with an iconic tossing of white caps beneath Thunderbird jets.
"It's not an easy experience, for sure," said Linda McFadden, who traveled from Kearney, Nebraska, with her husband to watch the graduation of their son, Jackson. "To be able to say 'I did it,' and feel that accomplishment and be excited about moving forward and serving their country … it's gone fast."
Mostly cloudy skies occasionally threatened but never really followed through with raining on the thousands gathered in the stands of Falcon stadium during the ceremony. Before the President's keynote, the cadets heard remarks from Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Academy Superintendent, Lt. Gen. Richard M. Clark. Clark congratulated the cadets on their unusually strong athletic achievements, which just in the last year included 4 conference championships, the selection of 49 cadets as All-American athletes, and a ranking of 42 out of 325 schools in the Learfield Cup competition, a compilation of all NCAA sporting competitions.
"This placed you number one in the Mountain West Conference, and number one among all service academies, far, far above West Point and Annapolis," Clark said, perhaps inserting a playful jab before Kendall's speech, who is a West Point grad himself.
Biden's approximately 30-minute address also noted the class of 2023 is the most diverse in the institution's history, with the highest percentage of female and minority cadets. The class also includes the highest number being selected to move on to graduate studies, at 20 percent.
"(That diversity) is why we're strong, that's why we're who we are, that's why we'll never give up. That's why," Biden said in his most emphatic moment of the address.
It was a speech which struck familiar notes of unity, responsibility and gratitude and one where the President urged the graduates to prepare for a quickly accelerating pace of change on the battlefield, where advancements in technologies like artificial intelligence and 3D printing will be in the hands of both the U.S. and its potential adversaries. Those advancements could be a "change in the character of conflict itself," he said.
Following the speech, Biden was named an honorary graduate of the academy's 2023 class and then stood on stage in an Air Force Academy hat to shake the hands of each of the 919 new 2nd Lieutenants. And then, immediately after shaking the last hand, the President took a little tumble. He was quickly helped to his feet for the conclusion of the ceremony.
It was only during the Thunderbirds air show following the ceremony, after the President's motorcade had exited the stadium, that the heavy clouds over the stadium let loose a short torrent of rain and hail.
The new graduates seemed to revel in it.
Corrections: Biden said advancements in technology could result in a "change in the character of conflict itself." A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted Biden in the headline. Additionally, 921 cadets graduated Thursday. The U.S. Air Force initially reported a different number.
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