FORT MEADE, Md. – Before they called her general, they called her “Ramba” in Puerto Rico – the female version of Rambo.
The nickname began in 1987, when Irene Miller was an ROTC cadet. Physical fitness and obstacle courses were a breeze to her. That’s because Cadet Miller ran everywhere.
“I lived in the countryside of Puerto Rico … Often my car had a flat tire, and I had to get to physical conditioning, and I’d already been running from afar,” said Irene, who now goes by her married name, Zoppi.
She would run from one bus stop to another, trying to catch the “guagua” in time for her physical training sessions. The nickname of “Ramba” was originally given by an ROTC instructor, a U.S. Army Ranger, but it stuck ever since.
Thirty years later, Zoppi still hasn’t slowed down. If anything, she’s picked up momentum and speed.
Instead of being remembered as a jungle warrior movie star, Zoppi carries a star of her own: Brig. Gen. Irene Zoppi is the first Puerto Rican woman promoted to the rank of general in the U.S. Army Reserve. She received the star during her promotion ceremony at Fort Meade on Aug. 28, 2017.
“If you look at the percentages, if you look at anything, this story was not written for her. She wrote it,” said Arnaldo Claudio, who is a retired U.S. Army colonel and Zoppi’s former ROTC instructor.
There are only 126 total general officers in the Army Reserve today, out of a total force of nearly 200,000 Soldiers. Statistically, that’s less than .007 percent.
“She’s an example and role model not just for young females in society, but also males. You have to understand where she came from. She came from a very poor background. The odds were completely against her … I had better chances (in life than her) because at least I spoke a little English. She came from – you can use the word ‘Nada.’ N-A-D-A. That means nothing,” said Claudio, who is now the federal police monitor for the Police Reform of Puerto Rico.
Zoppi’s promotion comes with a new appointment as deputy commanding general for the 200th Military Police Command, the largest military police organization in the Department of Defense. She’s served at every level of military leadership to get to this level. Yet, as extensive as her military resume is, Zoppi carries another lengthy list of personal and professional accomplishments: She speaks five languages, has a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland plus three masters’ degrees, including in business marketing and strategic studies.
“She is where she is because she is a strong will. A fighter. A warrior type that never said no and kept the resiliency throughout,” said Claudio.
During her ceremony, the room was packed with friends, family, military leaders and professional colleagues who have known Zoppi over the years. They had travelled from all over, even from Puerto Rico and Iraq, to attend the promotion. It took nearly two hours for all invited guests to shake hands and congratulate Zoppi after the ceremony was complete. Three U.S. Army major generals spoke during the ceremony, showering Zoppi with praise and respect.
“One of the first things you notice about Irene Zoppi is her energy and her presence. You don’t have to plug her in or recharge her to get energy out of her,” said one guest speaker and mentor, Maj. Gen. Luis Visot, the former chief of staff of the U.S. Army Reserve, who is now retired.
At one point during his speech, Visot invited guests from the audience to come up to the microphone, including education and military professionals who had known Zoppi at various stages in her career. Each of them said how they admired Zoppi’s compassion for people and her drive, but one speaker stole the show.
With tears in his eyes, Zoppi’s oldest son, Andrew, told a crowd of 200-plus guests what an inspiration his mother is to him.
“I’m so proud of her. She came in the Army not knowing English and my mom faced so much adversity. When I face difficulty, I ask myself, ‘What would my mom do?’” said Andrew Zoppi who is a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force.
“I have to have that certain leadership (that she has) … She’s always been there for advice, so I can train and mentor my airmen, and I look up to her. I’m so proud of her because she came from not even knowing English, enlisted, to now a one-star (general). That’s something you would think is impossible,” he said.
Zoppi is equally proud of her son and her entire family. Her husband of 29 years, Thomas Zoppi, is a Maryland police officer in Anne Arundel County. Together they have three children: Andrew, 26, Isabel, 19, and Antonio, 16.
During her speech, Zoppi presented them with gifts, and joked with her youngest son, Antonio, “For you my son, I have the best gift. I have an Army Recruiter waiting in the back. He’s ready for you.”
She credits her husband for supporting her throughout her career: In times of adversity, he brought her to the mirror to look at herself and persevere through whatever challenge she faced.
Thomas Zoppi was a U.S. Marine stationed at the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, Puerto Rico, when they first met. He admired Irene ever since the beginning, whom he saw set ambitious goals for herself even before they were married. They stayed up late one night to discuss their future dreams. He wanted to go into law enforcement. She wanted to graduate ROTC in hopes of making the rank of general.
“It wasn’t as easy as the dreams had sounded at the beginning. The Marine Corps sent me to the west, and the Army sent you to the east. As well as numerous other deployments, but through the bumps, mountains and barriers, you accomplished it, my love,” said Thomas during a speech. “One of the most important goals in your life has come true. I am very proud of you with all my heart and soul.”
For Zoppi, her family is part of her credentials. She’s as proud of her role of mother and wife as she is her new title of general.
“The same love that I’m giving the rest of my jobs, which I’m very proud of, I have to give my husband and my children … I have to be equally good to my family, like I am proclaiming to give to the rest,” she said.
On the civilian side, Dr. Zoppi is a program director for the National Intelligence University, which is run by the National Security Agency. She’s been involved in education ever since she left active duty as a captain in 1995 to join the Army Reserve. She became a public school teacher, and has since taught at various universities. She is now a member of the Maryland State Board of Education. On that board, she specializes in helping military families and minority students.
“She is an example of what perseverance and resiliency and working hard accomplishes. We’re not talking about just being smart … She has always worked hard,” said Claudio.
“She’s a servant to the community not only as a Soldier, but as a member and leader in one of the most important aspects of community: Education. In every society, we have three pillars: We have health, we have security, and we have education. She’s part of two pillars of our society. I mean, hello?” he said.
Zoppi truly understands the importance of education. In addition to being an ROTC cadet, Zoppi worked four jobs to help pay for her degree at the University of Puerto Rico. She worked in a department store, she cleaned, was an English tutor and was a professional scuba diver. She would dive for the coastal marine department to collect ocean sediments for study.
She’s bashful about her work as an English tutor while in college. Even though Zoppi didn’t speak English at the time, she was able to read it and helped correct papers for other students. Her father – who was from Indiana – owned the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Zoppi would use the encyclopedia to help her read and write in English.
When Zoppi’s military career took her from Puerto Rico to the U.S., then to Germany, deployed to the Persian Gulf War, and then back to the U.S., she describes it as a multicultural shock.
“If you know about culture and acculturation, you come to the United States, and it’s one culture. Then the military has another culture. Then you go to Europe. Then you go to war, another culture,” said Zoppi, who now resides in central Maryland.
Through it all, Zoppi maintained her Puerto Rican warmth and passion. The passion and love that Zoppi expresses exudes her through every aspect of her life. It’s part of her, she said.
“My culture is very warm and caring. We’re very loving. That’s part of who I am. And that’s how I became very successful in the military, because nurturing and caring and supporting (Soldiers) is the best way to go as a leader,” said Zoppi, who frequently refers to herself as a “servant leader.”
In the last three decades, she has seen the military’s equal opportunity culture embrace diversity to reward excellence, no matter the Soldier’s background. She’s grateful that in her 32-year military career (she originally enlisted as a private in 1985 before being commissioned) she’s been able to hold onto her Puerto Rican heritage while serving in the military.
“I’m proud to be from Puerto Rico, because it’s home. Its language becomes part of your soul, your spirit … I’m a product of a hard working people. I’m a product of a lack of not having. I’m a product to want to dream to become the best … Everybody who is from Puerto Rico who experiences that, we look at each other and we don’t give up. Wherever you go, you will see Puerto Ricans bringing their flag, their music, their guitar, and we will be playing and singing because that’s part of our soul. We are proud to be Americans and we are proud to serve, and we believe in the American values,” she said.
She’s also grateful of having reached this rank as a woman because it shows that everyone has the same opportunity to excel in the Army.
“We’re all Soldiers. It’s not about being a woman or not. It’s about having the same opportunities as our counterparts who are male Soldiers to become who we want to become,” said Zoppi.
In fact, in her newest position, Zoppi isn’t the only female general officer in charge of the military police command. She will be working for Maj. Gen. Marion Garcia, who has been in command of the 200th for more than a year. Before Zoppi took the position, the previous deputy-commanding general was also a woman: Brig. Gen. Kelly Wakefield.
“When I was coming to the ranks as a lieutenant, I never saw that. I never had a female mentor. And I never thought I could become (a general). It’s important that the Army is showing all of these diverse (opportunities) … It’s not about gender difference. It’s about how we are all Soldiers, and grooming Soldiers that have the potential to become the best at their higher position to make our Army better,” she said.