FORT MEADE, Md. — Before they called her general, they called her “Ramba.” In Puerto Rico, that’s 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 because Cadet Miller ran everywhere she went.
Miller, who now goes by her married name, Zoppi, sad she would run from one bus stop to another, trying to catch the “guagua” in time for her physical training sessions. The nickname “Ramba” was first used by an ROTC instructor and 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, Maryland, 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, a retired U.S. Army colonel and Zoppi’s former ROTC instructor.
“She’s an example and role model not just for young females in society, but also males,” said Claudio, who is the federal police monitor for the Police Reform of Puerto Rico. “You have to understand where she came from. She came from a very poor background. The odds were completely against her. She is an example of what perseverance and resiliency and working hard accomplishes. We’re not talking about just being smart; she as always worked hard.”
Zoppi’s promotion comes with a new appointment as deputy commanding general of the 200th Military Police Command. As the senior law enforcement unit of the Army Reserve, the 200th MPC has oversight of four brigades, 22 battalions and 53 companies dispersed across the continental U.S. It is the largest military police organization in the Department of Defense.
Zoppi has served at every level of military leadership to get to this level. She also carries a lengthy list of personal and professional accomplishments: She speaks five languages, has a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland, and three masters’ degrees in business, marketing and strategic studies.
Her promotion ceremony was packed with friends, family members, military leaders and professional colleagues who traveled from as far away as Iraq. Guests included three major generals who spoke during the ceremony.
“One of the first things you notice about Irene Zoppi is her energy and her presence,” said guest speaker and mentor, retired Maj. Gen. Luis Visot, the former chief of staff of the U.S. Army Reserve. “You don’t have to plug her in or recharge her to get energy out of her.””
Visot invited guests from the audience to the microphone and each of them shared their admiration for Zoppi’s compassion for people and her drive. One speaker stole the show.
With tears in his eyes, Zoppi’s oldest son, Andrew, a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant, told a crowd how inspired he is by his mother.
“I’m so proud of her. She came in the Army not knowing English and my mom faced so much adversity,” he said. “When I face difficulty, I ask myself, ‘what would my mom do?’’’
“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.”
Zoppi said she is equally proud of her son and her entire family. Her husband of 29 years, Thomas Zoppi, is a former Marine and a Maryland police officer in Anne Arundel County. Together they have three children – Andrew, Isabel, and Antonio.
She credits her husband for supporting her throughout her career and her Puerto Rican roots for her relentless drive to achieve.
“I’m proud to be from Puerto Rico, because it’s home,” she said. “I’m a product of a hard-working people. I’m a product of a lack of not having. [We] dream to become the best; we are proud to be Americans and we are proud to serve, and we believe in the American values.”
She added that she is grateful to have reached this rank as a woman because it demonstrates equal opportunities in the Army and 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 heritage while serving in the military.
“We’re all Soldiers,” Zoppi said. “It’s not about being a woman. It’s about having the same opportunities as our counterparts who are male Soldiers to become who we want to become.”
On the civilian side, Dr. Zoppi is a program director for the National Intelligence University, of 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 a member of the Maryland State Board of Education where she specializes in helping military families and minority students.
Zoppi said she truly understands the importance of education. She 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 as a scuba diver for the coastal marine department she collected ocean sediments for study.
In her new position, Zoppi will work for Maj. Gen. Marion Garcia, who has commanded the 200th for more than a year. Zoppi’s predecessor – also a female – was Brig. Gen. Kelly Wakefield.
“I never had a female mentor and I never thought I could become [a general],” said Zoppi. “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 about grooming Soldiers that have the potential to become the best … to make our Army better.”
Zoppi is a former commander of the 203rd Military Intelligence Battalion (TECHINT) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
By Master Sgt. Michel Sauret, 200th Military Police Command