Kamala Harris headlines Air Force Academy graduation, addressing Gaza and Ukraine

U.S. Air Force photo / Trevor Co
Vice President Kamala Harris walks onto Falcon Stadium as the commencement speaker for the Academy’s 2024 graduation on May 30, 2024 at U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo. Harris began her remarks on a light note, then turned more somber as she highlighted generations of Air Force contributions. The vice president referenced Ukraine, but Harris’ most specific comments addressed the Middle East.

Moments after Superintendent Richard M. Clark took center stage to open the final United States Air Force Academy graduation of his tenure, he made a request.

“Here we are. It's our last time together, and I want to leave you today with one last joke, one last story, and one last selfie. Are you ready? Give me a pose,” he said.

Turning to Vice President Kamala Harris, the ceremony’s commencement speaker, Clark, the academy’s first Black superintendent, asked her to join him for a picture with the class of 2024.

“I’m retiring tomorrow, so you know,” Clark said with a laugh and a grin.

Clark’s nod to his future, and those of the 974 cadets who filled Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs on Thursday, then gave way to recognition of their past together.

The class of 2024 entered the academy right on the cusp of COVID-19 shutdowns. Clark arrived that September. Alongside one another, he said, they persevered through circumstances they couldn’t have imagined.

“From day one, you dealt with uncertainty and knowing nothing about the experiences that you were about to face. It was anything but normal,” Clark said. “Your parents, your family members, dropped you off at USAFA four years ago during the global pandemic, and they couldn't even give you a proper goodbye. They basically had to kick you out of the door and keep driving.”

U.S. Air Force Academy --  (U.S. Air Force photo/Christina Merrill)
Christina Merrill/U.S. Air Force Academy
Cadets in the Class of 2024 take a selfie with Superintendent Richard M. Clark, who's set to retire, during graduation on May 30, 2024, at U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo.

That was not the case at this year’s graduation. As the ceremony got underway, families cheered, applauded and cried as their cadets marched onto the field. Most wore the bright yellow sashes signifying commission to the Air Force, while others were wrapped in silver sashes denoting their future as members of the Space Force.

Harris began her remarks on a light note. She drew laughter by listing popular academy bars and referencing mostly innocent acts of deviance by the class, including the theft of Clark’s license plate. The tone became more somber as she highlighted generations of Air Force contributions.

“Next month we mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day. That shining moment of allied bravery and sacrifice made possible because of America's air power. In the months leading up to the landings, it was our pilots, our planes, and our air crews that knocked the enemy from the sky. It was America's forces in the air that bombed train tracks and fuel depots to prevent Nazi reinforcements from reaching the front lines and helped defeat tyranny and fascism in Europe,” Harris said. “Eighty years ago, over the beaches of Normandy, America won control of the skies. And we have kept it ever since.”

Harris drew a direct line from that historic moment to the Air Force of today. Referencing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Harris commended American support for the sovereignty of others. She also highlighted the protective shadow the U.S. military casts over the northern Pacific, where Chinese forces recently simulated a full scale invasion of Taiwan, a crucial American ally.

But Harris’ most specific comments addressed the Middle East, where Israel’s controversial war in Gaza is in its seventh month. Harris made no reference to the pro-Palestinian protests that broke out at other college campuses across the country, including in Denver, instead focusing on how U.S. forces have stood by the Israelis.

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- (U.S. Air Force photo/Adalyn Greene)
Adalyn Greene/U.S. Air Force Academy
Vice President Kamala Harris stands at the podium at the commencement of the Air Force Academy's 2024 graduation on May 30, 2024, at U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo. Harris began her remarks on a light note, then turned more somber as she highlighted generations of Air Force contributions.

“Last month, when Iran launched an unprecedented attack on Israel, it was our air and space forces that mounted an unprecedented defense along with our allies and partners,” she said. “More than 300 drones, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles were fired at Israel. And thanks to our airmen and guardians, 99 percent of those threats did not hit their target.”

Harris’ special guests for the ceremony were the family of Major LeRoy Homer, Jr., a USAFA graduate from the class of 1987 who died on September 11, 2001. Homer was in the cockpit of United Flight 93 when four terrorists attempted to hijack the plane. He and the flight’s passengers fought the attackers, and instead of being used as a missile, the jetliner crashed in a field in Western Pennsylvania, killing everyone on board.

This year’s graduates selected Homer as their class exemplar – a hero whose qualities they hope to embody. Harris closed her speech by honoring his memory and encouraging the young listeners whose lives were about to change.

“Looking out at these cadets, we know Major Homer's vision and his spirit lives on. And graduates, then finally, I will say: Wherever you go from here, you are ready. You all are ready,” Harris said. “You have the skills, you have the knowledge and the strength of character to meet any challenge. You are warriors. You have dedicated yourselves to the service of our nation. And America's security relies on you. I know you'll make our country proud.”

The degrees were then handed out. Raising their right hands, the newly minted second lieutenants took their collective oath of office. The Air Force and Space Force songs blared. And with the famed Thunderbirds squadron screaming by overhead, the class of 2024 tossed their caps in the air and erupted together one last time.

Trevor Cokley/U.S. Air Force Academy
Cadets of the graduating Class of 2024 celebrate after being dismissed by throwing their caps in the air as the Thunderbirds begin their flyover at Falcon Stadium on May 30, 2024, at U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo.