When the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Class of 2024 arrived on the Colorado Springs campus in 2020, the ordinary freshmen faced an extraordinary challenge: navigating the first full school year at the service’s four-year university as the coronavirus pandemic raged around the globe.

Parents were unable to give their cadet a “proper goodbye” at dropoff, Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Richard Clark said.

“They basically had to kick you out of the door and keep driving,” Clark said, recalling the uncertainty of the pandemic’s earliest days, when testing lockdowns, quarantines, virtual classes and plexiglass partitions became ingrained in daily life, and students were forced to forgo visits home during the holidays and spring break.

Four years later, an undergraduate journey that began with tumult ended in cheers Thursday as nearly 1,000 seniors celebrated at a commencement ceremony at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs.

Of the 1,164 cadets inducted into the academy in June 2020, 974 graduated Thursday, bringing the total number of academy graduates to more than 56,600 since 1959, according to statistics provided by USAFA.

Though many uncertainties of the pandemic’s early days have lifted, the newly minted second lieutenants are entering the military as the Pentagon faces another set of unknowns: rising tensions in the Middle East as the war between Hamas and Israel has intensified, Russia’s war in Ukraine passes the two-year mark, and the potential for competition with China to boil into conflict in the Pacific.

Those challenges come as the Air Force races to modernize for a global fight, one that Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told cadets he believes they are ready to take on.

“You are beginning your careers during a strategic competition that is the greatest challenge our country has faced in modern times — perhaps in our entire history,” Kendall said. “[China] has designed and built its armed forces with the goal to deter and defeat the United States’ ability to project power, particularly in the western Pacific.”

The Class of 2024 included 70% men and 30% women, a gender breakdown similar to that of recent years, USAFA data shows. Still, the graduating class is less racially diverse than others in recent years, at a time when the Air Force is trying to overcome gender and racial disparities within its ranks.

In 2022 and 2023, 31% of USAFA graduates were minorities; that number fell to 25% in 2024. This year’s graduates include 136 Asian cadets, 127 Hispanic cadets, 70 cadets who identify with at least two races, 65 Black cadets, 23 Pacific Islanders and seven Native Americans.

Of 387 graduates headed for rated career fields, 357 are assigned as pilots, 12 as drone operators, 12 as combat systems officers, and six as air battle managers, the school said. Academy graduates owe the military at least five years of service, depending on their career path. Those who become pilots must fly in the Air Force for at least 10 years.

The academy is also sending 92 cadets to the Space Force, bringing that total to 485 graduates who have headed to the military’s newest branch since it was established in 2019. Six students are commissioning into the Army or Marine Corps.

Each time a speaker mentioned the Class of 2024 during Thursday’s ceremony, cadets yelled “Roy” — acknowledging their chosen “exemplar,” or an aerospace leader who students pick to emulate as part of school tradition. This year’s exemplar was Maj. LeRoy Homer Jr., a 1987 USAFA graduate who flew the C-141 Starlifter.

Homer joined United Airlines in 1995 and was the first officer on Flight 93, which crashed in a field in Shanksville, Penn. on Sept. 11, 2001. Homer was among those on the flight who fought back against Al Qaeda terrorists who attempted to hijack the plane and attack the U.S. Capitol.

Vice President Kamala Harris, the day’s keynote speaker, brought Homer’s wife and daughter to Thursday’s ceremony as honored guests, telling the graduates she believes his vision and spirit lives within them.

“Wherever you go from here you are ready. You all are ready. You already you have the skills. You have the knowledge and the strength of character to meet any challenge. You are warriors,” Harris said. “You have dedicated yourselves to the service of our nation and America’s security relies on you. I know you will make our country proud.”

The day also closed a chapter for Clark, who became USAFA’s first Black superintendent in 2020 and will retire from military service on Friday.

But first — a selfie. Clark invited Harris to join him in the frame as he angled his phone toward the sea of seniors to snap the memento.

“You have a great ability to lead through uncertainty and overcome adversity, and those traits will prove invaluable throughout your career in the Air Force and Space Force and throughout your lives,” Clark told graduates. “Equally valuable will be your development as leaders of character. Always remember to put integrity first and live honorably in every aspect of your lives.”

Courtney Mabeus-Brown is the senior reporter at Air Force Times. She is an award-winning journalist who previously covered the military for Navy Times and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., where she first set foot on an aircraft carrier. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and more.

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