After returning under highly restrictive pandemic conditions, members of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point's Class of 2020 are already U.S. Army officers as they await Saturday's mandatory graduation ceremony.
The graduating seniors were officially commissioned as second lieutenants May 23, the date on which their graduation ceremony was originally scheduled before the COVID-19 pandemic prevented them from returning after spring break, according to a recent Army news release. Some students arrived back on academy grounds by May 28 in advance of the commencement ceremony.
The class is finishing up a 14-day monitoring period before the ceremony to watch for symptoms of the virus. The members of the class are divided into different cohorts to allow for social distancing, but each tested negative upon return to the academy, the release states.
In late April, senior Army leaders defended the decision to have seniors return for graduation, where President Donald Trump is scheduled to deliver the commencement speech, maintaining that the class had to complete final medical checks and other administrative requirements before moving to their first duty assignments.
The U.S. Naval Academy took the opposite approach by holding its first-ever virtual graduation and commissioning ceremony May 22 after conducting five separate, live swearing-in ceremonies for the midshipmen between May 12 and May 20. The event featured pre-recorded remarks by Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
The U.S. Coast Guard Academy also held a virtual graduation ceremony May 20, which featured a pre-recorded keynote address by Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The class of roughly 1,000 West Point seniors has been turning in equipment, getting second lieutenant identification cards, receiving orders and packing up their rooms.
For class members, physical training now means practicing social distancing, said 2nd Lt. Mac Viljac.
"For PT, everyone knows to distance the entire time," Viljac said in the release. "We move in different groups to wherever we're doing our PT. ... It's a little different, but I think everyone's adapted to it pretty well."
In addition to out-processing tasks, each cohort eats meals together.
"Normally, there are 12 people at a table, but they're having us be with only two other people [in the mess hall]," 2nd Lt. Maddie Miller said in the release. "The food is already set for us at the mess hall, so there's no one coming around and bringing us trays of food, like they did during the school year. It's different, but it makes sense."
Miller and her roommate, 2nd Lt. Emma Powless, have also used the time to reconnect since they will soon be spread out across the Army.
"It's actually been awesome to be back, in the sense of seeing people and to get closure on our four-year experience here," Powless said in the release. "I think if West Point had said, 'Alright, we're going to ship your stuff to you. Now go have a nice Army career,' that would have been a really interesting way to enter the Army, and I don't think we would have gotten the closure on this crazy four-year experience that we would have liked to have."
Miller will begin her career at the field artillery Basic Officer Leaders Course (BOLC) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, at the end of July. Powless will report to engineer BOLC at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in mid-August, according to the release.
For health protection reasons, Saturday's ceremony will take place on the Plain at West Point instead of Michie Stadium and will be closed to families and other guests, the release adds.
But Viljac, who is heading to aviation BOLC at Fort Rucker, Alabama, said he is thankful West Point is holding the graduation ceremony.
"I know a lot of other schools didn't do it, but I think it's a good opportunity to really just tie the knot on West Point and move on," he said. "I think it's a very good thing. It will give everyone some closure. I'll enjoy sharing the experience with everyone, regardless of how we do it."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.