During paratrooper training at the U.S. Army Airborne School, Lt. Col. Jennifer Dunning Venghaus ’00 made a successful 1,250-foot jump, but while walking off the landing field, she twisted her ankle. Unwilling to drop out of the course, Venghaus completed her final training jumps, hiding the injury from instructors. However, one instructor noticed her limping and made her jump on the injured leg to see if she was too hurt to continue.

“By the time she graduated and got home, her ankle was so swollen that it would not fit in her boot,” remembers Venghaus’s spouse, Lt. Col. Joseph K. Venghaus ’00. “Jennifer is absolutely tenacious.”

That tenacity has served Venghaus well throughout her career as an Army officer and lawyer. Whether helping Iraqi officials rebuild their justice system or prosecuting some of the most heinous cases in the Army’s recent history, Venghaus has demonstrated a passion for her work and earned a reputation as a dedicated soldier, legal expert, and transformational leader.

“Jennifer models the Army values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage,” says Col. Andrew M. McKee, who was Venghaus’s supervisor during her assignment at the V Corps headquarters at Fort Knox, Kentucky. “She is the leader I want our younger judge advocates to emulate because she holds herself to the highest standards of legal and soldier professionalism.”

An Early Love for the Law

Venghaus knew she wanted to be a lawyer long before she knew she wanted to be a soldier. At the age of five, she told her beloved grandfather that she wanted to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer. She had one stipulation: she wanted to be the most important lawyer there is.

“He said, ‘Well, that’s the chief justice of the Supreme Court,’ and I said, ‘Then that’s what I want to be,’” Venghaus says with a laugh. “That’s not my goal anymore, but I’ve been interested in justice from a very young age.”

Venghaus got an early taste of the judicial process while chairing the University Committee on Discipline at Southwestern. That was just one of her many roles and activities as an undergraduate; she also was president of the Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity, vice president and treasurer of the Southwestern Business Student Association, public relations officer for the Students Helping the Admissions Recruiting Program, treasurer of the Alpha Phi Omega service fraternity, and member of the Southwestern Wind Ensemble. At the same time, she was working two jobs and double majoring in accounting and political science.

“Southwestern really helped set me up for success,” Venghaus says. “Being exposed to so many different things and learning to multitask has helped me throughout my career.”

Venghaus met her husband during her sophomore year. After graduating from Southwestern, they both entered the University of Richmond School of Law in the fall of 2000. When Joe told her he wanted to join the school’s ROTC program, she encouraged him; when she found out the military would pay for her degree, she happily joined as well. They both earned their law degrees in 2003 and entered active duty in 2004. Venghaus later earned her master of law with a specialty in criminal law from the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School and her master of military arts and sciences from the Command and General Staff College.

Rising Through the Ranks

Venghaus has been deployed four times, including two combat deployments to Iraq and two operational deployments to Europe. She has been stationed at Fort Gordon, Georgia; Heidelberg, Germany; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; the Pentagon; Fort Hood, Texas; Wiesbaden, Germany; and Fort Knox, Kentucky. She currently is stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where she serves as the staff judge advocate for U.S. Army South (ARSOUTH), which has a geographical area of responsibility that encompasses thirty-one countries and fifteen areas of special sovereignty in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. In that role, she is the legal advisor for the ARSOUTH commanding general and is responsible for all legal services for the command.

“When I was in law school, I was interested in tax law. I can’t imagine doing that now,” Venghaus says. “In the Army, you get to experience different areas of the law. I’ve done a lot of criminal law, and I’ve also done quite a bit of operational law, advising commanders on the law of war. I do a little bit of everything.”

When Venghaus says she does a little bit of everything, she means everything. She has helped soldiers and their families with estate planning and prosecuted sexual assault cases. She has attended conferences in Russia and laid the legal groundwork for multinational exercises in Poland. She has ensured the rights of Iraqi citizens and helped establish a U.S. military presence in Romania and Bulgaria. In 2022, she deployed to Europe with V Corps to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Jennifer has become one of the Army’s preeminent subject-matter experts for the European theater of operations,” McKee says. “As Russian aggression impacted European operations, Jennifer was a force for changes to the legal structure in Europe. Using her expertise in force management and personnel garnered from previous assignments, she oversaw the restructuring of legal services, consolidation of two Army service combatant commands into one, and activation of a new Army corps.”

Venghaus has received numerous awards throughout her career, including the Bronze Star Medal (with one Oak Leaf Cluster), the Meritorious Service Medal (with one silver Oak Leaf Cluster), the Army Commendation Medal (with one Oak Leaf Cluster), the Army Achievement Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal (with two Campaign Stars), and the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal. She is also entitled to wear the Army Parachutist Badge, Army Staff Identification Badge, German Armed Forces Proficiency Badge (Gold), German Armed Forces Parachutist Badge, Royal Thai Army Airborne Wings, and Royal Australian Parachute Badge.

Finding the Balance

According to her colleagues, Venghaus is just as successful personally as she is professionally. She is known as not only an extremely capable attorney and officer, but also a caring and compassionate leader.

Lt. Col. Garrison Groh first met Venghaus when she was serving as chief of criminal law at the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. He notes that although she was a captain serving in a role traditionally held by majors, she quickly earned the respect of the eight fellow captains she was tasked to lead. When Groh was later offered an assignment to work under Venghaus again at the V Corps headquarters at Fort Knox, he eagerly accepted.

“Amid the hurried pace of Army life, Jennifer prioritizes team-building, interpersonal engagement, and breaking bread together. Her approach is grounded in sincerity, prioritizing intentionality by scheduling team-building time free from shoptalk where we can meaningfully engage in each other’s lives,” Groh says. “In a world where loneliness is a serious and growing problem, Jennifer works hard to make sure that each person feels a part of the team and creates a climate where work isn’t just the transactional output of a ‘work-life balance,’ but a place where professional relationships can also be meaningful and where mutual respect, esteem, and friendship abound.”

Sgt. Maj. Manny Ortiz recalls a time when a pregnant soldier was told to report to duty in the morning as assigned despite having gone to the hospital while having contractions the previous night. After learning the soldier had not been discharged until 3 a.m., Venghaus marched into the soldier’s supervisor’s office and told him that the soldier needed to go home immediately and get at least eight hours of sleep before returning to duty.

“When the gentleman tried to argue the point, Jennifer dug her heels in and helped him understand that there was nothing more important at this point than that young soldier’s health and that of her unborn child,” Ortiz says. “Later, the soldier came back to me and told me that no one, in or out of the military, had ever stood up for her like that before. This is an example of the difference Jennifer makes every day.”

A Southwestern Pirate through and through, Venghaus believes in lifelong learning. In addition to mentoring young Army attorneys and paralegals, she has taught classes on legal topics and advocacy to Army lawyers as well as to medical professionals in the military community. She has also served as a judge for moot court and mock trial competitions, coached moot court and mock trial teams, and served as a guest speaker at career services events.

Venghaus notes that her proudest accomplishment is also her biggest struggle: maintaining a successful career while raising a family. She and Joe, who have been married for more than twenty years, have two young children, Austin, 6, and Taylor, 3.

“Many people end up quitting the Army to have a family or end up never having a family at all,” Venghaus explains. “I’m proud of the fact that I stuck to it, but it’s also the hardest thing I do every day.”

Despite the challenges she has faced and the sacrifices she has made, Venghaus is grateful for the path her career has taken. She is honored to support her fellow soldiers and do her part to improve justice both across the country and around the world.

“I hope I’m setting an example for my kids. I hope they see that when they grow up, they can do everything they dream about and everything they put their mind to,” Venghaus says. “I certainly have put my mind to it.”