NOEL KING, HOST:
The White House has been adamant that things need to get back to normal. And so this weekend, Vice President Mike Pence went to Colorado Springs to speak at the U.S. Air Force Academy graduation. It was a different kind of commencement, though. Here's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: It's been six weeks since the vice president and his team have taken such a long trip, and things have changed - new safety protocols, including fever checks, social distance seating and smaller press contingencies. But the new reality that the vice president faces, as well as many Americans once the economy resumes, was more obvious when he stepped off the plane. The vice president was greeted by the Colorado governor, Jared Polis, who was wearing a face mask with a Colorado flag pattern.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Guys, let's head to the vans. Social distance - one to a row.
ORDOÑEZ: The drivers of the motorcade wore masks, as did officers escorting them on police motorcycles. Instead of the stadium, the ceremony was moved outside to an open field to make it easier to social distance. And no family members could attend.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It is now my honor to welcome the graduating class of 2020.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
ORDOÑEZ: The Air Force Academy Band, some also wearing masks, played on. But without the cheering crowds and doting parents, it felt more like a dress rehearsal. The cadets dressed in blue-and-white uniforms marched to their seats, all spaced eight feet apart. Some traditions continued - the opening prayers and the reciting of the third verse of the U.S. Air Force song.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Down we roar to score (ph).
ORDOÑEZ: Vice President Pence told the cadets he felt it was important for him to be there to honor the nearly 1,000 cadets who will serve the country.
VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: I know we gather at a time of great challenge in the life of our nation. And you all here in the pursuit of your commission in the service of this nation have been through a lot. And while we don't quite look like the usual graduation at the Air Force Academy, let me tell you this is an awesome sight.
ORDOÑEZ: In many ways, the ceremony felt hollow. But when the now-graduates stood for the Air Force song and the Thunderbird jets flew by and the graduates threw their caps in the air...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Class of 2020, dismissed.
ORDOÑEZ: ...There were cheers and tears and the moment felt real. Twenty-two-year-old Harry VanGeison, like many cadets, then pulled a cloth mask from his pocket and wrapped it around his face.
HARRY VANGEISON: It's a little difficult to not be able to hug your friends, not be able to be close to these people that are basically our family. It's a challenge, but I think we're all just happy to be sharing the moment, even if we can't do it in the traditional way. So getting the Thunderbirds flyover was a wonderful continuation of the experience that we all hope for.
ORDOÑEZ: VanGeison then reached up, adjusted his mask before walking off to rejoin his friends. Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, Colorado Springs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEAS OF YEARS' "SURFACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.