They are the first class of graduates since the Vietnam War to step from the Naval Academy campus into a major conflict, and Vice President Dick Cheney told them yesterday to expect a "new kind of war against a new kind of enemy."
"This afternoon, with one oath, you will step into history," Cheney said in his address to the 965 graduating midshipmen, on a sun-splashed day of pageantry that drew thousands to a tightly guarded Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. "You are the first class in more than a generation to leave this academy in a time of war."
That war would be a "struggle of years," he said, and returned to a theme of the Bush administration in recent days by warning that more terrorist attacks were a near certainty.
"There is no doubt they wish to strike again and are working to acquire the deadliest of weapons," Cheney said. "Deliverable weapons of mass destruction in the hands of terrorists would expose this nation and the civilized world to the worst of horrors, and we will not allow it."
The Class of 2002 entered the academy at a time Americans felt safe on their own soil and were enjoying a long stretch of economic prosperity. It leaves in darker, less certain times.
Still, the graduates expressed little anxiety yesterday, and many said that the September attacks had made them eager to take four years of grueling classroom training and apply it at sea in defense of their country.
Parents were quicker to worry.
Joseph Maggi Sr., a New York City firefighter who lost colleagues in the attacks Sept. 11, said the war on terrorism had forced him to reassess the risks that his son, Joseph Maggi Jr., would face after graduation.
"It makes you a little more nervous," he said. "It's a change of mind frame."
Peg Olson pressed against a crowd to snap a photograph of her son, Matthew, shaking hands with the vice president. "This really is one of the proudest days of our lives," she said.
Even so, she frets for her son, who wants to fly Navy planes.
"It worries me," she said of his likely deployment to a war zone. "But this is the path he's chosen. And as parents, we have to be supportive."
The graduates will leave Annapolis for a life at sea, on destroyers, submarines, aircraft carriers and fighter jets. The Navy and Marine Corps have played central roles in Operation Enduring Freedom, from the Navy SEALS who used lasers to pinpoint targets for airstrikes to the carriers that served as floating runways for bombing runs.
Authorities kept heavy guard around the stadium yesterday, and friends, and family of graduates waited in lines at the gates to pass through metal detectors and have their bags searched. Secret Service agents threaded through the roughly 20,000 in the bleachers and on the field.
The security measures, combined with the mass of automobiles heading for the Eastern Shore for the holiday weekend, produced tie-ups for miles along Interstate 97 and U.S. 50.
Though salted with reminders of the role that the Class of 2002 would play in the country's war on terrorism, the three-hour ceremony unfolded under a cloudless sky and was replete with lighter moments.
The midshipmen filed into the stadium attired in natty white uniforms, caps cradled under their elbows. Necks craned as the Blue Angels team of precision-flying F/A-18 Hornets streaked just overhead, trailed by plumes of exhaust.
Cheney sat beside his wife, Lynne Cheney, and wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat. He doffed it before his 18-minute address, and then he stood for more than an hour as he clasped hands with the procession of midshipmen collecting diplomas.
The crew-cut graduates let out throaty cheers, slapped high-fives, and leapt from the podium with diplomas in hand.
The 797 headed to the Navy received ensign's shoulder boards signifying their status as officers. The 162 bound for the Marine Corps received gold bars of a second lieutenant. Two others entered the Air Force, and four are foreign students.
The class shot to their feet and cheered when Cheriene M. Griffith made it to the front of the line. Griffith was ranked dead last in the class, a position called "anchor." Following tradition, each graduate gives a dollar to a collection bestowed her as a kind of consolation prize.
Many fared worse. Of the 1,231 inducted into the class in 1998, more than 260 dropped out or were expelled.
In the postcard-perfect moment that has come to define the ceremony, the graduates hurled their white hats toward the heavens, a ritual dating to 1912 that signals their passage into the ranks of officers.
"It's a thrill to know it's all behind me, and I'm off to bigger and better things," said Zach Mitchell of Jarrettsville, who is headed to submarine school.
The graduation was the last for Vice Adm. John R. Ryan, the academy superintendent, who is retiring next month to become president of the State University of New York Maritime College. Officials from Cheney on down heaped praise on Ryan, an aviator whose four-year tenure at Annapolis matched that of the graduating class.
His successor at the academy's helm is Rear Adm. Richard Naughton, who trains the Navy's top pilots at a base in Nevada.
The newly commissioned ensigns and second lieutenants have 30 days off before they begin a commitment to spend five years on active duty.
Dusty R. Casey, an aspiring naval flight officer, planned to spend the rare break in cookouts and parties. The first thing she planned after the ceremony, she said, was "take this uniform off and let my hair down."