In a culmination of their efforts over their years at the Naval Air Station in Meridian, seven naval aviators received their Wings of Gold on Friday along with a challenge coin from Vice President Mike Pence, whose son, 1st Lt. Michael Pence, was one of the graduates.
"It is an incredibly important day. One of the biggest days of their lives," Capt. Brian S. Horstman, the commanding officer of NAS Meridian, said. "In my life, I've had children, been married and received my wings. It's one of my top four days."
The graduates, who typically spend approximately a year training at NAS Meridian, were some of the aviation students affected by the grounding of the jets in the spring of 2017.
"They're kind of special to us because they were here twice as long," Capt. Brian S. Horstman, said. "They are a little deeper ingrained in our community."
For Capt. Nicholas A. Mungas, the commander of Training Air Wing ONE, the challenges of the grounding made the winging ceremony more of an accomplishment.
"I think for the students to be stuck in a program for so long and not be able to move forward... it's more of a relief to have overcome those challenges against those odds," Mungas said.
For the seven graduates, which included one Marine Corps and one French Naval pilot, Mungas advised them to remember their support systems, something he stressed in one-on-one meetings with the pilots previously.
"There's not one single pilot that's just taking off of a ship. It' s a pyramid of people that goes all the way down to the sailor making the food," Mungas said. "Never forget that that pyramid exists."
Vice President Pence and 1st Lt. Pence declined interviews.
Retired Navy Capt. Sterling G. Gilliam, the guest speaker, drew upon his position as the director of the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola in his speech to the graduates.
"As the director of the National Naval Aviation Museum, I get to tell the story and the history of naval aviation. And the thing about that is that it continues to grow," Gilliam said. "These aviators are going to be a part of that."
More than anything, Gilliam said he appreciated the opportunity to speak to the graduates at this moment in their careers.
"I remember mine like it was yesterday," Gilliam said about the winging. "My 30 years with the Navy is one of riches... I got to see and do things that a young kid from North Carolina could only dream of."
Naval aviators from Friday's winging ceremony included: Lt. j.g. Alexander Joseph Carlson, Lt. j.g. Ruairidh Alexander Robert Donaldson, Lt. j.g. Connor Andrew Humber, Lt. j.g. Maxwell James Kampton, Lt. j.g. Blake Leming, 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Pence, Lt. Sean Hugo Richardson and Lt. Matthew Scott Stafford.