U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- The U.S. Air Force Academy's Class of 2014 will face new missions as the United States draws down in Afghanistan, but the challenges they encounter will be no less formidable and complex, Vice President Joseph R. Biden said during the Academy's commencement May 28.
"The poet Thoreau said, 'A bluebird carries the sky on its back.' You are falcons, and you carry America on your back," Biden said.
Biden said thank you to the parents attending the graduation ceremony at Falcon Stadium for raising the outstanding young men and women comprising the Academy's 56th graduating class, and he expressed the nation's pride in the newly commissioned second lieutenants.
"The entire nation is proud of you," Biden said. "All of you who are graduating today took seriously the chance to hone your leadership skills within a culture of commitment and a climate of respect. Under your charge, the Cadet Wing put in 38,000 hours of community service. You welcomed gay, lesbian and bisexual cadets with respect. You took the lead in combating sexual harassment and sexual assault ... because honor is your code and you understand that no man has any right, except in self-defense, to ever raise a hand against a woman. It's a matter of honor."
Today's new lieutenants will lead an Air Force that will play a vital role in helping the United States rebuild and retool its capabilities in Europe and revitalize its alliances in Asia and the Pacific, Biden said.
"America is and will remain a resident Pacific power," he said. "That power has been essential to the peace and prosperity of that region for the past seven decades, and it will be equally essential in the decades ahead. Airpower over that expanse of the Pacific is vital and will have to increase."
American forces in Afghanistan will decrease to less than 10,000 by year's end, Biden said. Those forces will focus on training Afghanistan's military and conducting operations against the remnants of al-Qaida. They will return to a grateful nation that will honor and respect their return.
Ending the war in Afghanistan, Biden said, allows the U.S. to redeploy its strategic and intelligence assets to other parts of the world where they are needed. But taking advantage of that opportunity requires the nation to stay engaged as a leader among nations.
"It's necessary to have the wisdom and the humility to distinguish between challenges that warrant us acting alone and decisively and challenges that require us marshaling coalitions and cooperation," he said. "But it's within our grasp. The generation that launched this Academy 60 years ago did it.
"They helped write the constitutions of Germany and Japan that led to democratic governments and guaranteed that neither nation would ever possess a nuclear weapon," Biden continued. "They formed the greatest military alliance in the history of the world, NATO, from the ashes of war. They put together the Truman Doctrine ... and they supported the Marshall Plan, a sustained, multi-billion dollar commitment to get Europe back on its feet, to prevent the chaos that erupted after World War I and led to World War II."
Biden said this generation faces a similar challenge, and in order to meet that challenge, the nation must rebuild its economic, human rights and strategic foundations. Its economic foundation, built on the world's most innovative businesses, most productive workers, finest research institutions and brightest entrepreneurs, will enable the U.S. to pursue human rights and national interests abroad.
"America has to remain a force of dignity and relief from suffering. That's why we have to continue to help and to provide to people in desperate need and continue to lead the world in fighting hunger and disease," Biden said. "None of this can be carried out successfully without you, without the finest Air Force in the world. Owning the skies, space and cyberspace, providing global reach, global strike capability, nuclear deterrence and command and control -- it's all within your grasp and duty."
Two areas where the Air Force has shone especially bright, the vice president said, have been its search-and-rescue and aeromedical evacuation missions.
"I've marveled at what you, the Air Force, has done in that golden hour, how you've changed the face of the battlefield, saving thousands of warriors in those hours," he said. "If half of the severely wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq had been wounded in Vietnam with the same injuries, they would have died. ... You've changed the face of the battlefield with your heroism and commitment."
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said she and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III share the nation's pride in the Class of 2014.
"They arrived as young men and women of distinction, but over the last four years, they've worked very hard and multitasked," she said. "To the Class of 2014: You have accomplished much, but we will ask you to do even more in the days and years ahead. So go forward not to just understand the Air Force legacy but to live the Air Force legacy every day of your lives: integrity, service and excellence. We are counting on you."
Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson said the men and women of the Class of 2014 is truly ready to begin their journey as Airmen in the United States Air Force.
"You have been a transformational class of dedicated servant leaders," she said. "We are immensely proud of you."