When cadets return to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, campus for the start of the fall semester, they will be greeted by two new department heads of the Army and Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
Army Lt. Col. Jimmy Lucas and Air Force Lt. Col. Damien Johnson, who joined the ranks of the Volunteers over the summer, answer questions about their military service, interests and goals.
The Road to Army ROTC on Rocky Top
Lucas graduated from the College of William and Mary and was commissioned as a U.S. Army Armor officer in 2006. He and his wife, Jenn, have been married for almost 14 years. His previous assignment before being selected to lead UT’s ROTC Rocky Top Battalion was serving on the Joint Staff at the Pentagon.
What led you to become a soldier?
Lucas: I felt a call to serve at a very young age, and for as long as I can remember knew the two things I wanted to do were serve in the military and teach. I always had a desire to contribute back to the nation. I enjoy team sports and pushing myself to contribute as a member of the team. All things considered, that probably naturally led me toward the Army.
What are you looking forward to at UT?
Lucas: After only being on campus for three weeks, I consider myself extremely fortunate to be a part of the Rocky Top community. From freshman move-in to sporting events and the arts, my wife and I hope to be involved as much as possible. We are looking forward to enjoying everything the greater Knoxville area has to offer.
What do you share when people ask about joining the military?
Lucas: Answering the call to serve by joining the military is extremely rewarding. Not only do you have the opportunity to work with incredibly talented people on a daily basis, but you also have the benefit of joining a huge extended family.
Why do students choose UT’s ROTC program?
Lucas: I think there are a couple of reasons students select UT and the Rocky Top Battalion. First, I think the university and the program do a tremendous job instilling a sense of community into prospective students. In just the few weeks I have been on campus, I have already had the chance to interact with three students and their parents who raved about the family environment here on campus. From an Army ROTC perspective, UT cadets historically perform exceptionally well at Cadet Summer Training between their junior and senior years of school. This year alone we have had 36 cadets earn an overall excellent or outstanding on their performance evaluations. When future cadets are weighing their options, I think the success of our current cadets and the accomplishments of our alumni in the service make us an attractive destination. This year alone we already have 58 new Volunteers signed up for the program.
Any hobbies or pets?
Lucas: I enjoy reading, playing video games, running, cycling and watching college football. My wife and I have one dog, a Norwegian Elkhound named Bo. We just celebrated his 14th birthday and took him to do all the things he loves — brunch, walks, a Jeep ride and appetizers.
Returning to Serve UT
Johnson is a native of Knoxville and graduated from UT and Air Force ROTC in 2006 with a journalism and public relations degree. As an Air Force aviator and weapon systems officer, he’s flown the B-1 Lancer heavy bomber aircraft and T-1 Jayhawk twin-engine jet and served on multiple assignments in the U.S. and overseas. Before returning to UT to command AFROTC Detachment 800, he was stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
How did you get assigned to your alma mater?
Johnson: The Air Force advertises annual job openings for AFROTC detachments to those who qualify. Since UT is my alma mater, I jumped at the opportunity. I have experience in academia and instructing during my time in the Air Force, so it was a natural fit and a win for me and the Air Force.
What sets UT’s AFROTC program above the others?
In the Southeast region, UT’s AFROTC program has consistently been ranked in the top third of approximately 40 AFROTC programs. We are small enough to ensure all cadets receive a personalized experience based on their strengths and weaknesses relative to their peers. Because we have a low cadre to cadet ratio, 1-to-20, we can ensure successful completion of the program and selection for other professional development opportunities.
What surprises you the most about leading and mentoring cadets?
Johnson: I’m impressed by how much things have changed (for the better) since I was a cadet. Our cadets have a much higher cumulative GPA, are in better physical shape, and are more engaged in community and university activities than my generation.
Goals for your first year in your new role at UT?
Johnson: First, I intend to establish an AFROTC Alumni Group to help with cadet mentorship, community and potential endowments. Second, I will increase the volume of cadets attending internships and fellowships with Y-12 and ORNL, the Machine Tool Research Center, and other professional development opportunities such as Boeing and OshKosh Defense. Third, I’m seeking methods to bring STEM-focused curriculum into the AFROTC enterprise through topics such as hypersonics, 4D printing, blockchain, and artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Any pets or hobbies?
Johnson: I have a miniature schnauzer, Winston, that my wife and I have had for 14 years. I enjoy mountain biking and geopolitics. I also like to cook.
UT’s Military Foundation and Recent New Benefit
The military program at UT was established in 1844, one the oldest of any land-grant university in the country. Lucas and Johnson succeed many notable leaders of the ROTC programs, including Brig. Gen, Robert R. Neyland, who in 1925 was a military science department instructor while serving on UT’s football team coaching staff.
In June 2022, UT’s Board of Trustees approved a measure classifying military-affiliated students—veterans, active-duty military personnel, reservists, Tennessee National Guard members, and Army and Air Force ROTC cadets—as Tennessee residents, enabling them to receive the in-state tuition rate regardless of their residence of origin. The benefit began last fall after it was approved by the Tennessee General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee.
Cindi King (865-974-0937, email@example.com)