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Columbus AFB hosts two graduations amidst COVID-19 regulations

Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 21-03 sit at their graduation ceremony on Dec. 11, 2020, at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. Students will conduct pilot training for at least a year before graduating from SUPT. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Davis Donaldson)

Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 21-03 sit at their graduation ceremony on Dec. 11, 2020, at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. Students will conduct pilot training for at least a year before graduating from SUPT. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Davis Donaldson)

U.S. Air Force Retired Lt. Col. Richard “Gene” Smith, former Vietnam prisoner of war and former 50th Flying Training Wing commander, speaks to Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 21-03 while U.S. Air Force Col. Seth Graham, 14th Flying Training Wing commander, listens on Dec. 11, 2020, at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. Smith was held captive for over five years in the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jessica Williams)

U.S. Air Force Retired Lt. Col. Richard “Gene” Smith, former Vietnam prisoner of war and former 50th Flying Training Wing commander, speaks to Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 21-03 while U.S. Air Force Col. Seth Graham, 14th Flying Training Wing commander, listens on Dec. 11, 2020, at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. Smith was held captive for over five years in the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jessica Williams)

U.S. Air Force Col. Seth Graham, 14th Flying Training Wing commander, speaks to Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 21-03 and their families during a graduation ceremony on Dec. 11, 2020, at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. Graham has conducted more than 2,600 flight hours, including 741 combat hours. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Davis Donaldson)

U.S. Air Force Col. Seth Graham, 14th Flying Training Wing commander, speaks to Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 21-03 and their families during a graduation ceremony on Dec. 11, 2020, at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. Graham has conducted more than 2,600 flight hours, including 741 combat hours. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Davis Donaldson)

U.S. Air Force Col. Seth Graham, 14th Flying Training Wing commander, stands with 2nd Lt. Nicole Stubbs, Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training graduate, on Dec. 11, 2020, at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. Stubbs was assigned to fly the C-17 Globemaster III at McChord Air Force Base, Wash. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Davis Donaldson)

U.S. Air Force Col. Seth Graham, 14th Flying Training Wing commander, stands with 2nd Lt. Nicole Stubbs, Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training graduate, on Dec. 11, 2020, at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. Stubbs was assigned to fly the C-17 Globemaster III at McChord Air Force Base, Wash. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Davis Donaldson)

Members of Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 21-03 break their “silver wings” during their graduation ceremony on Dec. 11, 2020, at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. As a result of COVID-19, the SUPT Class 21-03 had to split their graduation into two separate ceremonies. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jessica Williams)

Members of Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 21-03 break their “silver wings” during their graduation ceremony on Dec. 11, 2020, at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. As a result of COVID-19, the SUPT Class 21-03 had to split their graduation into two separate ceremonies. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jessica Williams)

A graduate from Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 21-03 breaks his “silver wings” in half on Dec. 11, 2020, at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. As tradition, pilots will break their first pair of wings to keep one half and give the other half to a loved one. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Davis Donaldson)

A graduate from Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 21-03 breaks his “silver wings” in half on Dec. 11, 2020, at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. As tradition, pilots will break their first pair of wings to keep one half and give the other half to a loved one. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Davis Donaldson)

COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- Thirty-two pilots graduated from Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. on Dec. 11, 2020.

In order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the larger class was spilt up into two ceremonies, allowing proper social distancing among the graduates and family members attending.

The guest speaker for the first ceremony was U.S. Air Force Retired Lt. Col. Richard “Gene” Smith, former Vietnam prisoner of war and former 50th Flying Training Squadron commander.

Smith offered pieces of advice to the graduates as they prepared for the next phase of their careers.

As a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War, Smith spoke about how he was shot down and held captive at the Hỏa Lò Prison, otherwise known as the “Hanoi Hilton”. Smith flew 33 combat missions in the F-105 Thunderchief.

Smith used his experiences from Vietnam as one of his lessons for the graduates. The lesson being how to face the enemy in today’s world.

“The world that you guys are facing today is totally different than 20 years ago, 40 years and certainly 50 years ago,” said Smith. “We kind of knew who the enemy was back then, even in Vietnam, but we don’t know who the enemy is today. Even though the enemy may be hard to define, your job is to be so prepared that the enemy wakes up and says ‘not today’.”

After, Smith asked the new pilots if any of them thought that they had a bad assignment. He then proceeded to say no bad assignment exists and that the assignment is based on what the pilot makes of it. After, Smith gave closing remarks and said he was thankful for the opportunity to speak at their graduation.

For the second graduation ceremony, a guest speaker was not able to attend. Stepping up to the role was Col. Seth Graham, 14th Flying Training Wing commander.

Graham said his speech was towards the families more so than the graduates as he talked about how challenging pilot training is and how proud their families should be.

“Pilot training is one of the hardest things these young men and women will do in their career,” Graham said. “It’s been nearly 21 years since I graduated myself, and pilot training remains one of the most difficult challenges I have faced.”

He continued by saying pilot training is hard for a reason. The U.S. Air Force cannot be the best without setting exceptional standards, he said.

“In the last year, the training has entailed countless hours in academic classrooms and learning everything from the fuel system of a T-6 to safely navigating international airspace.” Graham said. “They have been tested, quizzed, questioned and evaluated relentlessly. In mere weeks, they went from barely being able to strap themselves into an airplane to flying solo.”

After, Graham said their training was relentless because of U.S. adversaries. The U.S. Air Force must compete with adversaries at a global level through air power, he said.

Graham then congratulated SUPT Class 21-03 and began the awarding of their diplomas.

“So today we celebrate the Air Force’s newest pilots,” Graham said. “The road has been tough and not everyone who started this journey with you had what it takes to walk across this stage. Congratulations Class 21-03, I’m proud to call you wingmen and I look forward to watching you tackle the challenges of the future.”