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From Campus to Cosmos

A senior ROTC cadet draws on his military and engineering background to prepare for a career in the U.S. Space Force.
Ben Johnson working on a computer.

Benjamin Johnson ’24, a senior majoring in computer engineering, is a cadet lieutenant colonel in Syracuse University’s Air Force ROTC Detachment 535.

Benjamin Johnson ’24 was a rising junior at Syracuse University when he found his calling. Only it didn’t happen on campus but, rather, a thousand miles away at historic Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama.

A cadet lieutenant colonel in Syracuse’s Air Force ROTC Detachment 535, Johnson had successfully competed for a spot in Maxwell’s rigorous field training program. The two-week, boot-camp-style experience, he explains, was a crash course in survival training, deployment skills and physical conditioning.

“It was super intense—running around every day in 90- to 100-degree heat and yelling until I was hoarse,” recalls the camp’s Distinguished Graduate. “But I proved to everyone, including myself, that I could do it. That’s when ROTC took on new meaning to me.”

Syracuse has enabled me to combine my twin passions for space exploration and computer engineering into a dream job.

Benjamin Johnson ’24

Johnson is parlaying his military mettle into an astronomical job opportunity. In May, he becomes Syracuse’s first student to join the United States Space Force after graduation. The Virginia native will spend the next four years designing computer architecture as well as integrating hardware and software for the nation’s space defense system.

We recently caught up with Johnson—a computer engineering major in the College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS) and a 2023-24 Remembrance Scholar—to discuss his skyrocketing career growth.

Congratulations on your Space Force commission. What are you most excited about?

Ben Johnson sitting in class.

Johnson is Syracuse’s first student to join Space Force after graduation.

Being part of something new. Even though U.S. space operations have been around for decades, Space Force [founded in 2019] is unique because its mission is to secure our nation’s interests in, from and to space. It uses space assets to support joint military operations and ensure our nation’s access and freedom to operate in outer space.

I’ve been hired as a computer developmental engineer—part of a small, STEM-focused workforce that deals with technical, quantitative problems. Since Space Force works closely with industry, many of my fellow Space Force Guardians, about a third of them, will be civilians. I’m excited to operationalize new technical and scientific developments.

What kind of specialized training is involved?

I’ll initially enroll in OTC [Officer Training Course], which is like active-duty tech school for Space Force officers. I’ll then embark on a three-year OPEX [Operational Experience] tour, honing my skills for a career in space operations, intelligence or cybersecurity. I won’t officially work as an engineer until my fourth year of service.

What led you to Syracuse University?

My father, who recently retired from the Coast Guard, has been a huge inspiration to me. He’s probably the main reason I joined ROTC.

Ben Johnson at the Chancellor's review.

Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Skarda (left) and Johnson at the 107th Chancellor’s Review in April.

Although there were many ROTC programs on my college wish list, I didn’t find out about Syracuse until Capt. David Stebbins emailed me. [Then a recruiter for the University’s Air Force ROTC detachment, Stebbins has since retired as a major from the military.] He informed me that we’re one of the nation’s best universities for veterans and military-connected students.

Capt. Stebbins also helped me get my foot in the door. He helped me land scholarships and other awards at Syracuse, like the Remembrance Scholarship, the Dottle Family ROTC Cadet Scholarship and the ECS Leadership Scholarship.

What’s unique about our Air Force ROTC detachment [aka Det 535]?

Benjamin Johnson talking with fellow ROTC student.

Johnson is deputy group commander of Det 535, made up of students from Syracuse and various “crosstown schools.”

We’re relatively small and selective. We have about 30 cadets, many of whom come from “crosstown schools” like SUNY Oswego and SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica. In fact, John Zammiello, who graduated from SUNY Oswego in 2021, was the first cadet in our detachment to be commissioned into Space Force.

I appreciate the personalized attention and additional instruction that I get from our cadre—the commissioned and noncommissioned officers [NCOs] who train us. In a large detachment, I’d be nothing more than a number; here, I matter. I interact and build relationships with my superiors in ways that I couldn’t anywhere else.

Is it true that Det 535 is cadet-run?

Most detachments are [cadet-run], but our cadre gives us a surprising amount of autonomy. For example, each cadet is assigned a new responsibility every semester. I currently serve as deputy group commander, the second person in charge. I brief our cadre on what’s happening and make sure everything runs smoothly. We’re a tightknit group.

Does this comradery spill over into your degree program?

Absolutely. Although I know most of my fellow majors by name, I’m close to about half of them. That’s because during our junior and senior year, we take lab courses involving team-based activities and close communication with one another.

It was during my sophomore year, however, that I took a course that changed my life: Digital Logic Design [CSE 261]. Logic design refers to a system that uses simple number values to produce input and output operations. It’s the basis for everything digital—computers, cell phones, personal devices.

Who taught it?

Benjamin Johnson with Professor Shiu Kai Chin.

Johnson with Professor Shiu-Kai Chin ’75, G’78, G’86, whose Digital Logic Design course (CSE 261) has been life changing.

Shiu-Kai Chin ’75, G’78, G’86, professor of electrical engineering and computer science. His experience with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Information Directorate [a premier research organization that explores, prototypes and demonstrates innovative technologies] informed the material. That course helped solidify my interest in computer engineering, especially in a military context.

What do you like most about Syracuse University?

That I’m able to chart my own path. Syracuse has enabled me to combine my twin passions for space exploration and computer engineering into a dream job. Whether I become a “lifer” in the military or eventually join a civilian company, I’m going to be happy.

This wouldn’t be possible without my ECS professors and the officers and NCOs in my cadre. All of them are genuinely committed to teaching me—not just facts and figures in a textbook, but character development.

Syracuse has uniquely prepared me for Space Force, which develops “leaders of character.” Such leaders aren’t in it for themselves. They embrace the branch’s core values of character, connection, courage and commitment. Leaders of character are who our nation turns to during times of uncertainty. That’s the kind of person I want to become.

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