At an Air Force Academy graduation unlike any other in the school’s storied history, cadets sat 8 feet apart, their faces uncovered, as Vice President Mike Pence told them a weary nation needs their leadership now more than ever.

“America is being tested,” the vice president told 967 graduating cadets. “While there are signs that we are making progress in slowing the spread, as we stand here today, more than 700,000 Americans have contracted the coronavirus and tragically more than 37,000 of our countrymen have lost their lives.

“But as each of you has shown in your time here,” he went on, “and as the American people always show in challenging times, when hardship comes, Americans come together. We rise to the challenge. The courage, compassion and generosity of the nation you will defend are shining through every day.”

The vice president’s remarks extolled patriotism, military might and American perseverance. They also praised President Donald Trump, last year’s graduation speaker, and the Trump administration’s military policies.

“We will get through this. We will protect our most vulnerable people. And we will heal our land,” Pence told the academy’s class of 2020.

Graduating weeks ahead of schedule, the cadets traded in Falcon Stadium, the usual graduation location, for an outdoor pavilion near the academy chapel. They did not march to receive their diplomas and no spectators were allowed to attend.

The Air Force Thunderbirds performed their traditional flyover of the ceremony but did not perform their usual aerobatics demonstration. And after the Thunderbirds took flight over an unusually quiet academy, graduates jumped and cheered in place, but could not hug or shake hands. Some waved to classmates instead.

The class of 2020 was historic even before coronavirus precautions drastically changed Saturday’s ceremony. Eighty-six graduates will now go on to serve as officers in the new Space Force, the first class of academy graduates to do so.

“You, if deterrence fails, will fight and win the battle for space superiority,” said Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, the Space Force leader, during Saturday’s remarks, “which is so vital to our nation, to our allies, and our joint coalition forces.”