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Air Force Academy prepares for historic graduation

In a ceremony combining established, solemn ritual with new, medically necessary protocols, 967 U.S. Air Force Academy cadets will graduate April 18, launching careers in the Air and Space Forces as second lieutenants. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Cokley)

In a ceremony combining established, solemn ritual with new, medically necessary protocols, 967 U.S. Air Force Academy cadets will graduate April 18, 2020, in Colorado Springs, Colo., launching careers in the Air and Space Forces as second lieutenants. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Cokley)

In a ceremony combining established, solemn ritual with new, medically necessary protocols, 967 U.S. Air Force Academy cadets will graduate April 18, launching careers in the Air and Space Forces as second lieutenants. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Cokley)

In a ceremony combining established, solemn ritual with new, medically necessary protocols, 967 U.S. Air Force Academy cadets will graduate April 18, 2020, in Colorado Springs, Colo., launching careers in the Air and Space Forces as second lieutenants. (U.S. Air Force photo by Trevor Cokley)

ARLINGTON, Va. (AFNS) --

In a ceremony combining established, solemn ritual with new, medically necessary protocols, 967 U.S. Air Force Academy cadets will graduate April 18, launching careers in the Air and Space Forces as second lieutenants.

Vice President Mike Pence will deliver commencement remarks, following in the footsteps of prominent officials speaking at the service academy’s graduation. President Trump spoke last year.

Whatever normalcy Pence’s appearance conveys, however, will be affected by COVID-19. To protect against the virus graduates will be required to rigorously follow what are now familiar practices including remaining at least 6 feet apart at all times.

“U.S. Air Force Academy instructors trained and prepared these cadets to become second lieutenants in the Air Force and Space Force and they’ll soon depart for critical missions around the globe,” said Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett.

“This ceremony will reflect the challenging environment and will carefully abide by the protective guidelines communities are following across our nation and globally.”

The decision to hold the graduation, which begins at 11 a.m. MDT, was carefully considered by Air Force leaders who determined the ceremony could be done with minimal risk.

Aware of how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting life around the world, the Air Force Academy worked through a deliberate and detailed plan to fulfill academic and military training requirements and graduate the senior class safely and with recognition they deserve.

Even so, there will be noticeable differences. Attendance is strictly limited and Academy officials sought medical advice and consulted all applicable COVID-19 safety procedures.

The majority of the cadet wing will be absent as the freshman through junior cadets departed the Academy in March to finish their year through distance learning.

The ceremony will be live-streamed in order for families and friends to view the closed event. In addition to the vice president and the Department of the Air Force leadership present, only a small number of the school’s faculty are permitted to watch the event from a distance.

Academy officials designed the ceremony specifically to ensure strict physical distancing protocols and in accordance with the new White House-released procedures. Cadets will march onto the school’s parade field adjacent to their dorms, known as the Terrazzo, separated by a minimum of 6 feet. They also will be seated at least 8 feet apart for the approximately 30-minute ceremony.

The Academy’s leadership implemented stringent procedures to keep cadets healthy, arranging for cadet-only shopping hours at the commissary, converting the dining facility to grab-and-go only, tightly restricting access to the cadet area by anyone other than essential personnel, and allowing cadets to go off base only to get take-out or drive-thru meals.

“We also employ continuous health screening and isolation measures, which gives us confidence in moving forward with a greatly pared down version of our traditional graduation ceremony,” said Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, Academy superintendent.

“The members of the class will raise their right hand and swear an oath to serve and protect the U.S, but they will do so humbly and with full acknowledgement that thousands of graduates across the country are not being afforded the opportunity for a ceremony,” he said.

The United States Air Force Aerial Demonstration Squadron, known more commonly as the Thunderbirds, will fly over the ceremony. The jets will pass over the ceremony in the final moments as the cadets throw their hats into the air, a long-standing academy tradition.

Silveria also expressed thanks for the tremendous show of support across the country and locally for the Academy’s Class of 2020.

And in one final requirement before leaving the Academy, cadets will be screened again for COVID-19 prior to departing for their new postings and missions.

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