A few minutes after 10 a.m. Saturday morning, the West Point Band began to play and 1,107 members of the U.S. Military Academy’s Class of 2020 stepped off from the sally ports along Washington Hall and began to march onto the Plain that serves as the centerpiece of the academy.
It was a full-circle moment for the members of the class, for it was on the Plain almost four years ago where they had officially joined the Corps of Cadets during the Acceptance Day parade. It also marked the first time since 1977 that a commencement ceremony had been held on the Plain instead of in Michie Stadium.
The sun glistened off the brass buttons decorating the front of their full-dress gray coats as the members of the class marched onto the Plain from opposite sides in twin columns. Along with the red sash designating them as firsties and the cadet saber at their left hip, the traditional cadet uniform had an extra accessory Saturday as each member of the class wore a mask during the march-on. The masks and the location change were only some of the many adjustments to the ceremony caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to rage throughout the world.
White chairs spaced six feet apart waited for them upon the Plain as they came together one final time for a graduation ceremony that looked like it might not happen at all a few months ago. The class had been scheduled to graduate May 23, but the date was pushed back after the semester was thrown into turmoil by the pandemic.
The Corps of Cadets left for spring break in mid-March expecting to return in a week. Then the virus began to spread, and that short break became an indefinite stay away from the academy. The Class of 2020 became the first members of the Corps to return during a five-day process beginning May 26. They then entered a 14-day quarantine leading up to the graduation ceremony while finishing the final tasks required of them as cadets.
“I was honestly really happy that we all got to come back and I got to say goodbye,” said 2nd Lt. Nerissa Siwietz, who branched armor and will begin her career at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. “These people have been with me for the past four years (through) all the really good and bad times. To all come together before we all go off all over the country and the world has been a really good experience.”
Classes throughout West Point’s history have graduated early in times of war to meet the needs of the country, but—as commencement speaker President Donald J. Trump noted—the Class of 2020 became the first to have a delayed ceremony turning their traditional 47-month experience into a 48-month one. Because of the delay, the 1,107 members of the class in attendance and the six additional members who were unable to attend the ceremony, had all been commissioned as second lieutenants in the Army prior to Saturday unlike in a typical year where they are commissioned after receiving their diplomas.
“I’m not going to lie, I’m nervous, but I’m excited,” said 2nd Lt. Iris Yu, who branched Military Intelligence with a branch detail to Chemical. “West Point has taught me that if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you. That’s the attitude I’m going into the Army with, which is why I chose Fort Drum as my first duty station. I know it’s not going to be easy, but nothing worth having comes easy.”
Along with the different location, the most notable change was the lack of families and friends filling the stands ready to cheer on their graduate as his or her name was called. Due to public health concerns, the decision was made to close the ceremony to all visitors who instead had to watch a livestream and cheer from home.
In attendance at the ceremony were Trump, Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy and Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James C. McConville, who served as distinguished guests. Throughout the ceremony, the class also received words of encouragement from their fellow members of the Long Gray Line including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Class of 1986; Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, Class of 1969; and Heisman Trophy winner Pete Dawkins, Class of 1959.
The members of the class were welcomed to the Plain by West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. Darryl A. Williams. He thanked the second lieutenants’ families and friends who couldn’t attend for supporting the members of the class throughout their time at West Point. He also honored the memory of Class of 2020 member C.J. Morgan, who was killed in a training accident last summer and gave advice to the new officers as they begin their Army careers.
“Your challenges ahead will require moral and physical courage,” Williams said. “In our great Army, there are Soldiers awaiting your arrival right now wondering if their lieutenant will be worth following. Their loved ones wonder if you will care for their Soldier. Your character and leadership are essential for answering those questions. Be the officer worth following and take care of your Soldiers and their families. Emulate those who have come before you.”
Williams was followed at the podium by Trump, who was making his first visit to the academy as president to serve as the commencement speaker. Trump thanked the members of the class for answering the call to serve in what he called the “most exceptional army ever to take the field of battle.”
Tracing the unbreakable chain of West Point graduates that includes Gens. Douglas MacArthur, George Patton and Ulysses S. Grant, Trump called on the Class of 2020 to add their names, “to this eternal chronicle of American heroes.” They will do so, he said, by following the example of their predecessors and living their class motto of “With Vision We Lead.”
“Today, each of you becomes another link in that unbroken chain, forged in the crucible known as the United States Military Academy, the greatest on earth,” Trump said. “It has given you Soldiers that you can rely on to your right and to your left. Now, we are entrusting you with the most noble task any warrior has ever had—the privilege to carry out the task of preserving American liberty. As long as you remain loyal, faithful and true, our enemies don’t even stand a chance. Our rights will never be stolen. Our freedoms will never be trampled. Our destiny will never be denied and the United States of America will never be defeated.”
After receiving their diplomas and saluting Trump and Williams, the new officers received the order of “Class dismissed,” from First Captain 2nd Lt. Daine Van de Wall and threw their hats in the air as helicopters from the 82nd Airborne Division flew overhead.
“Thinking back over the past four years and how myself as well as my classmates have changed, even though we all have the same faces we’re all different people on the back end,” said 2nd Lt. Michael Worth, who branched armor and will begin his career in Hawaii after attending graduate school. “Having this final event to provide closure, I can’t even describe it. Of course, obviously, I’d love to have my family here and be doing it with all the different traditions and everything, but just having the opportunity to be side-by-side with my classmates and actually toss my hat up in the air finally is amazing.”
Following graduation, the members of the class will begin their Army careers as second lieutenants serving in every branch at posts throughout the world. Twelve members of the class, including the first two graduates from Kosovo, will return to their home countries to serve in their nation’s armies, further strengthening the bond between the American Army and its allies.