Military Community Jennifer Cernoch

When Jennifer Cernoch was first diagnosed with terminal cancer in December, she made one decision right away: that she would continue to work full-time for the nonprofit Soldiers’ Angels for as long as she could possibly work. 

Throughout chemotherapy and radiation, Cernoch has continued to serve as Vice President of Development for Soldiers’ Angels, a national nonprofit founded in 2003 by Patti Patton-Bader, the great-grandniece of General George Patton. The organization provides aid and resources to military members, veterans and their families. While in its early days, the organization focused on linking volunteers with deployed service members to whom they could send care packages overseas, the organization has steadily expanded its activities over the years. 

Today, Soldiers’ Angels provides many services on a national level for the military and veteran community such as helping military caregivers access telehealth, including psychiatric care; providing move-in kits for homeless veterans as they transition into housing; offering transportation services for veterans to VA appointments; distributing crafted items to patients at VA hospitals; holding virtual baby showers for spouses of deployed service members and wounded heroes; and much more. The organization also serves the growing low-income and homeless veteran community by holding monthly Veteran Food Distributions in six cities across America — including San Antonio.

To learn more about volunteering with Soldiers’ Angels, whose national headquarters is in San Antonio, visit www.soldiersangels.org or contact the organization by phone at 210-629-0020. 

“I know it sounds cliche,” said Cernoch of her decision to keep working after her diagnosis, “but I want to help the world. I want to be able to make a difference in the world. If that means one veteran gets a box lunch and doesn’t have to go hungry tonight on the streets of San Antonio, that’s important to me.” Cernoch has a background in psychology, with a PhD from Vanderbilt University, and started her career in the medical arena of nonprofits before her father, a veteran, encouraged her to work with veterans. She began working for Soldiers’ Angels in 2013. 

Throughout her treatment, Cernoch has continued to work full-time – and she said her colleagues universally supported her decision.

“They wrapped their arms around me and they said, ‘What can we do?’, and have given me so much flexibility if there’s a day that I wake up and I just can’t move, or I’m hurting, or anything like that,” she said. “So I’m still taking phone calls, doing Zoom calls. I was – even with my bald head.” 

She said continuing to pursue the mission of Soldiers’ Angels helped her to cope, and kept her motivated and looking forward to each day. 

“You have to have a will to live, you have to have a will to get up in the morning, and you have to have a will to make a difference,” Cernoch said.

She added that she doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her. 

“I know it’s terminal, I know that God has a plan for me. I don’t know what that is, but whatever plan that is, I have to always say every day – I am so blessed,” Cernoch said. “I am so truly blessed every day I open my eyes and greet the world and say hello to the world.

She added that she’d like to tell people to appreciate every moment, because they don’t know what the future will bring. 

“Everybody has their place in line to get to heaven,” she said. “When it’s your turn, your time is up, no matter how old you are, no matter what your diagnosis is … Embrace that line every single day, because you never know when that line’s going to just end. You should be happy you got to be in line that long, for however long you got to be.”

Amy Palmer, president and CEO of Soldiers’ Angels, said, “Seeing [Cernoch] after chemo, having a good day or a bad day, she’s just still so positive and encouraging and still so motivating and wants to do so much. Her service for veterans and also the fact that she’s still continuing on – everyone is just really inspired by that.”

Palmer said Cernoch does it all, from fundraising to outreach, with a constant eye to helping vulnerable service members, veterans and their families. 

“She runs all our fundraising nationwide and overseas, and just her nature and her heart are really committed to service,” added Palmer. “Even after she found out she had cancer, she was still at a food distribution and helping veterans and loading bags of food into cars. She just has a great spirit. I still ask her every day how she’s feeling, and she always says, ‘Great.’”

Palmer said that even during the Texas snow catastrophe in February, Cernoch remained upbeat, although she had no power for days and had just received chemotherapy. “She was saying, ‘I’m so thankful for what I do have, I’m so thankful we still have a way to cook’ – she really sees the positive in every situation,” Palmer said. “If you told her you had the flu, she would still make a big deal out of it even though she has so much going on. She’s just such a good person.” 

Farr Nolen, Vice Chair of the Soldiers’ Angels Board of Directors also praised Cernoch.

“Sometimes …  in life you come across people who are so kind and so thoughtful and so generous that it puts you back on your heels because you wonder, ‘What’s their angle? No person is really that good.’ And then the more time you spend with them, you begin to realize that this person really is that good.  That’s Jennifer.  She brings so much light into a world that can be very dark at times.”

Cathy Miller, a long-time Soldiers’ Angels volunteer, said she would describe Cernoch as “loving, compassionate, strong and fierce.” Miller, who has known Cernoch since 2012, when she worked with her at another organization, considers her a friend and mentor. She added that Cernoch has a dedication and passion for improving the lives of military veterans.

“She has truly followed our motto, ‘May no soldier go unloved,’” said Miller. “Her father was in the military, and she talks about him with so much pride. I bet he’s smiling down on her with that same pride!”

Miller said one of the reasons she came to Soldiers’ Angels was because she so enjoyed working with her before. 

“I have learned so much from her,” said Miller. “She is one of the most gracious and giving people I know, but she’s also someone who will fight for what she believes in.”

Learn more about the program at mysa.com/extraordinarywomen.