Four years ago, they entered the Naval Academy at a time of peace.
Yesterday, under a brilliant blue sky, the 976 midshipmen of the Class of 2005 received their diplomas and military commissions, shook hands with President Bush and graduated into a nation at war.
It was a day of celebration, tempered with sense of purpose and anxiety, for the graduating class that arrived in Annapolis just weeks before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"We all had those people who told us our time would come," said Bobby Zubeck, 22, of Platte City, Mo., who plans to be a naval aviator. "And now, it's our time."
A crowd of more than 20,000 packed into the heavily guarded Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis for the ceremony, which lasted just over three hours.
Cannons boomed. The Blue Angels flew by in formation. Mids dressed in natty white uniforms posed for photographs and embraced family members.
But beyond the cheers, hugs and flashing cameras was something palpably different - a sense of urgency and apprehension that has been tugging at the class since Sept. 11, 2001.
From that day on, war became a reality for the Class of 2005. They have seen former classmates deployed to dangerous conflict zones, and they have corresponded by e-mail with friends on the front lines. They have read about the war in newspapers, watched it on television and talked about it in class.
"As a plebe, I had no idea what I was getting myself into," said Lacey Ainsworth, 22, a Marine from Houston. "Now that we've spent four years getting ready for combat, we're ready to go."
While many of the newly minted officers expressed excitement and enthusiasm yesterday, many parents felt tinges of anxiety.
Carol Amerine and her husband, Perry, journeyed from Arkansas to see their son Travis graduate. He is one of their three sons, and the second to attend the academy.
"Of course it makes me nervous," said Carol Amerine, fighting back tears. "But it's the right thing to do."
This year's graduates began their plebe - or freshman - year soon after Bush's last commencement address at Annapolis, to the academy's Class of 2001.
The president recalled that time yesterday.
"None of us imagined that a few months later, we would suffer a devastating surprise attack on our homeland, or that our nation would be plunged into a global war unlike any we had known before."
The attacks forced the academy to lock down and post armed guards at its gates. Visitors were not allowed on the yard, and boats patrolled the school's shores.
Although most of these measures were later lifted, life at the academy changed. Classes on fighting terror were added. Academy instructors and alumni returned from tours in Iraq or Afghanistan and shared stories about the fighting there.
The names of five academy graduates - all killed in action - were added to the marble plaques in Memorial Hall, a monument to lost alumni.
"We came here expecting to join a peacetime military - one that would mean occasional deployments," said New York City native Will Kelly, 22, who is bound for flight school. "Then, everything changed."
Kelly said many of his classmates were so moved by the attacks that they wanted to spring into action.
"There were a large number of us who thought about leaving the academy to get out there more quickly," he said. "What happened was so overwhelming, and we all shared this sense of purpose - we wanted to be a part of it."
Many showed an increased interest in the Marine Corps, seeing it as the fastest route to the front lines. Yesterday, the academy graduated 207 Marines - the largest number since the Vietnam War era. The Marine Corps-bound midshipmen will likely be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan within a year.
Then, there was the apprehension, particularly in the past two years. The loss of five academy graduates was felt on the Annapolis campus, a tightly knit community that had not seen a combat casualty since 1983.
"It's definitely sobering to have friends heading over to Iraq," said Josh Wort, 22, a Marine pilot from New Jersey. "It just puts a whole new spin on what it means to be here."
Despite their fears, yesterday's graduates said they felt that four years at the academy have prepared them for just about anything.
The most obvious anxiety came from the parents of graduates.
Maine residents Elaine Falender and her husband, Gordon Gayer, said they worry about the future of their daughter, Elisabeth, who will become a surface warfare officer after completing a yearlong scholarship at Oxford University.
"I'm definitely concerned for her safety - but a mother's gut sense is to be concerned for her children," Falender said. "Most of all, I feel pride. An incredible sense of pride."
Sense of pride
Pride was visible on the faces of the young officers - many of them slightly sunburned - who were delighted by the president's decision to shake the hand of every graduate.
"I think that was a stand-up gesture," said A.J. Walker, 22, a football player who is headed for submarine school. "I've met Bush a couple of times, but this takes the cake."
As the ceremony came to a close, many midshipmen said that despite their eagerness to join the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, they were savoring their final hours as a class.
"A lot of people say the Naval Academy is a great place to be from but not a great place to be," said Kelly. "But after four years here, I can't imagine I'll ever get to be around so many smart, dynamic people again."