The uncertainty of coronavirus forced the U.S. Coast Guard Academy to do something it’s never done -- commission officers virtually.
The service academy in New London put together a virtual commencement Wednesday for its ensigns who represent the class of 2020.
It featured both live and prerecorded elements, as the academy sought to commission new officers while staying safe during the pandemic.
Coast Guard Commandant Karl L. Schultz addressed the class and compared the current situation to the last time commencement was affected: During World War II, cadets graduated early to go out and defend the country.
“Those wartime classes’ experiences, their worldview and the leadership philosophy they carried were molded by the clash of great powers in a war that impacted every single nation on earth, just as your career trajectory as commissioned officers will be shaped by the current COVID-19 pandemic -- the most consequential health crisis in our collective memories,” Schultz said.
Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, delivered the keynote address.
“As frustrating as it may be, the unorthodox situation in which we find ourselves today is emblematic of what you will all find when you’re on the front lines defending this country, and that is the need to be prepared for the unexpected,” Wolf said. “You must be ready.”
Wolf offered advice on how the graduates can stay prepared: Continue to learn and take calculated risks.
The highest-ranking American military officer also addressed the class of 2020. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that in addition to the ongoing stress the pandemic is putting on the U.S. armed forces, other points of tension have surfaced during the academic career of the cadets, like “Russian aggression” in Syria and Eastern Europe and “an assertive Chinese militarizing the South China Sea.”
“As you leave your homes for your first duty assignment and begin your journey, you will serve your country during a time of incredible challenge and increased complexity around the world,” Milley said. “The world around us is becoming increasingly unpredictable and under increased strain.”
He then called on the ensigns to fulfill their duties as service members by maintaining peace and using diplomacy as the weapon to do so.
First Class Alaric Stone, this year’s USCGA distinguished graduate, spoke on behalf of his fellow class members. He discussed the last time cadets gathered in person -- on “Billet Night” in March, when cadets receive deployment orders -- and how, because of the pandemic, it ended up being their final time together as cadets.
“We’ve heard it over and over again -- the refrain ‘you don’t realize how special this place is until you leave it,’” Stone said. “Distance has a way of giving us perspective, and while the situation has been less than ideal, it has given us a unique opportunity to see just how special it is to be at the academy surrounded by friends.”
Comments from Milley, Wolf and Stone were prerecorded.
As part of the virtual proceedings, all of the ensigns’ names were announced in recognition of their graduation. While that’s standard practice, this year’s added wrinkle included an accompanying photo of each ensign broadcast on the livestream. Another prerecorded element cycled through cadets appearing via Zoom as they took their graduation oath.
This year’s group of ensigns is the largest in USCGA history. The class of 248 includes 100 women -- the most ever.