Born and raised in Puerto Rico, I enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve before joining the University of Puerto Rico’s ROTC program to become an officer. There, the cadre, staff, students and our families all played critical roles in my mentoring experience.
I graduated at the top of my class. I was selected to join the Regular Army in military intelligence, serving at home and around the world, including in Germany and Southwest Asia during the First Gulf War. Ultimately, I was the first Puerto Rican woman to attain the rank of general in the Army Reserve.
Reflecting on my ROTC years, my success is the success of others. Having mentors makes a world of difference. Mentorship is multidimensional, relational and directional. I learned these attributes from mentors who were my advisers and role models. These authentic leaders guided my career toward excellence because they wanted me to succeed.
With mentors, soldiers can grow to become authentic leaders who care about soldiers we lead and serve. My ROTC mentors, including Maj. Mario Maceira, Capts. Angelo Sanchez and Arnaldo Claudio, and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Juan Pimentel, were my firsthand mentors during my formative years in ROTC. They taught me to be resilient but not immune to the challenges, obstacles and barriers that leaders and soldiers may face.
I also found encouragement from my peers, including my brothers in arms, now-Brig. Gen. Narciso Cruz and now-retired Col. Ricardo Javier.
Becoming our best was expected because we represented the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and we were proud of our culture, language, accent and heritage. However, it took much work to acculturate to the way of life in the United States. It is possible when you have mentors who inspire you to discover your resiliency and inner charisma to go the distance.
Through the ROTC cadre, I grew to be a second lieutenant, but for the rest of the journey, I found myself turning to my peers and self-development. I read many books on leadership and became passionate about the upbeat transformational leadership style enough to obtain a doctorate in philosophy.
As I moved up in the ranks, I tried to pay it forward—and I continue to do so. I love mentoring because I was given the mentoring I needed during my ROTC years. I am who I am because of these mentors. I have learned the art of guiding, developing and caring for others. You cannot lead unless you care. To meet this objective, I have mentored many extraordinary leaders at all levels and ranks. I can tell so many stories, all of success. Mentoring is the gift that unlocks human potential.
I lead as a mentor, coach and guide because people are the Army’s mission. A true mentor of leaders must care with a sincere heart. Finding—and being—a true mentor may seem daunting, but it is rewarding. So, let’s inspire each other. I am here if you need me.
Brig. Gen. Irene Zoppi Rodriguez, U.S. Army Reserve retired, served over 35 years in the active Army and the Army Reserve, retiring in 2020 as deputy commander, U.S. Army South, and director, Army Reserve, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. She deployed to Kuwait and Iraq. She holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Maryland and has three master’s degrees: in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College and an MBA and a master’s in business marketing from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. She is an Association of the U.S. Army Center for Leadership fellow.