President Joe Biden delivered warm words — and a sober warning — as he addressed graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the 65th class to graduate from the storied Colorado institution.
"No graduating class gets to choose the world into which they graduate," Biden said to the 921 cadets. "Every class enters the history of a nation, up to that point, that has been written by others. A few classes, once every several generations, actually enters at a point in our history where they actually have a chance to change ... the trajectory of the country."
Biden said this year's class is at an inflection point.
"The world you graduate into is not only changing rapidly — the pace of change is accelerating, as well," he said. "We're seeing proliferating global challenges, from Russia's aggression and brutality in Europe, to our competition with China and a whole hell of a lot in between."
And the skies, Biden said, matter more than ever.
"We're going to count on you to keep us at the forefront of air and space dominance, enabling the entire joint force to be stronger," he said.
This graduating class — forged in the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic — emerges into an uncertain world. For some alumni, the sensation is familiar. Lew Hatch graduated in 1970 and joined the elite Ravens air squadron, which flew classified missions over Laos.
"Their key to survival was our air support," said Hatch, who retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel. "And that's the reason the Ravens were there. We were there to direct the airstrikes and provide the air support for our Laotian allies on the ground.
"And that holds pretty much true today. Same thing was true in Afghanistan. Same thing is true in Ukraine. And you have to own the airspace, and the ability to deliver ordnance from the air is the key to the battle."
The Ravens program was declassified in the mid-1980s, but they kept so few records that some details — such as how many pilots were shot down — were not documented. Hatch can only estimate that five of his nine-member cohort were shot down. According to official records, 22 members of his squadron were killed in action.
VOA asked if he'd do it again.
"Oh, in a heartbeat," Hatch said. He paused. "While I lost a lot of friends there, it was one of the most rewarding things I've ever done in my life. And I think, almost to a man, most Ravens will tell you that."
VOA also asked Hatch what stuck with him from his class' graduation speaker, then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird. Hatch laughed and demurred, saying that graduation week is often a time for lively celebration for cadets.
These new airmen and women know a lot rides on them. But as their superintendent reminded the families in attendance, they have come a long way in a short time.
"If your kids were like mine, they're tearing up your house, they're eating all your food," Lieutenant General Richard M. Clark said. "They're copping teenage attitudes. They're spending all your money. And I know that some of you thought, 'How in the world is this person going to be a functioning adult?'
"But today, I guarantee you, these graduating cadets are far more than that. They are the most promising young leaders of our nation with a sense of duty and honor to serve and lead our airmen and our guardians."
This year's graduating class also includes 12 cadets from Cambodia, Jordan, Malaysia, Peru, Poland, Romania, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Tunisia. Three hundred ninety-eight of the graduates — more than a third of them — are pilots.