WEST POINT, N.Y. (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will speak to graduating U.S. Military Academy cadets Saturday in a ceremony returning to West Point's football stadium with pandemic precautions.
Austin, a 1975 graduate of West Point, will address about 1,000 cadets who will become U.S. Army second lieutenants.
Austin, the first Black defense secretary, served in the Army for 41 years and was in charge of Central Command before retiring in 2016.
West Point's graduation ceremony returns to Michie Stadium a year after the pandemic prompted a change in venue. Last year, then-President Donald Trump spoke to graduates sitting spaced out on the academy’s nearby parade field.
Trump's appearance was criticized as a political move that put the graduates at risk, though the Army said the cadets had to return to campus anyway for final medical checks, equipment and training.
All guests at the ceremony this year must provide either a negative COVID-19 test result or proof of vaccination.
Graduating cadets will be spaced 3 feet (1 meter) apart on the field. Each graduate was provided with six tickets, instead of 10, which will allow spacing between different families in the stands of the stadium.
The modified ceremony caps an unusual year at West Point in which COVID-19 forced changes in how the military trained and educated more than 4,000 cadets.
“Probably the biggest challenge that I faced that is unique to this year was leading through COVID," said Cadet Reilly McGinnis, first captain of Corps of Cadets.
As the highest ranking cadet, McGinnis had to explain to her classmates the reasons behind pandemic-related rules, such as why seniors' weekend passes to leave West Point were temporarily restricted.
“There were definitely some negatives in that. But also it opened up the opportunity for us to really come closer as a Corps and spend a lot of time together building cohesive teams we always talk about," McGinnis said earlier this week. "Just getting to know our classmates, spending time with them on the weekends instead of scattering all across the country, going on pass.”
The Associated Press