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Army’s newest Commanding Officer

Being the only female soldier in a class of 30-odd men was like having 30 brothers, says Lieutenant Colonel (LTCOL) Vanessa Ropitini who commissioned from the ranks and is now Commanding Officer of 2nd Combat Service Support Battalion.

09 May, 2023

LTCOL Ropitini grew up in the country in a working class family. “I had an older sister and two younger brothers. We made our own fun, and led an active, outdoors lifestyle. Sport was a big part of my life and I didn’t really want to give any of that up.”

When the time came to make a career choice, LTCOL Ropitini knew her small town wasn’t going to offer much. “There was an Army Recruiting office down the road from where I lived, so I went in there to find out what being in the Army was all about. The recruiting Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) made it sound exciting and adventurous, so I applied to join.”

She had applied for Teachers’ College at the same time, to train as a PE teacher, but missed out on selection.

Early in, she realised what the recruiting NCO had told her hadn’t really educated her into what the Army was about. “I thought the Army was the Army, not different Corps / Trades, Officer / soldier. I was very naive and had very little understanding.”

Back then, Army life was very different to today. “People did not care what they said to one another. Instructors were encouraged to make students feel stupid and insignificant, as it was believed that this would create a resilient and ‘thick skinned’ individual who could cope when faced with harsh conditions.” Reflecting on those early years, she can see she was dealt some harsh hands compared to her male colleagues. “I can’t categorically say that was because I was a female, but it sure looked like it from my perspective. I wouldn’t describe my journey in the Army to be a battle, but I sure have battled to get to where I am.”

But it was “awesome” to leave one family and march straight into another family.

“I was the only female in my class of 30-odd males and it was like having 30 brothers. They were pretty protective I must say.”

As a career soldier and Commanding Officer, she considers the NZ Army provides world-class training.

“This has been demonstrated to me on numerous occasions, none more so than working with coalition partners on exercises and operations. Because we are such a small force, our soldiers and officers need to be able to multi task and lend a hand where necessary. The bigger, richer, more equipped forces often write us off or underestimate our capabilities. Boy, do they get a surprise once they see how we operate and what we can achieve.”

As a Commanding Officer, she had to be very organised. “There is so much to be across. There are six sub-units across the North Island, with 450+ people. It is very true when they say 10% of the people take up 90% of your time.”

No one deployment stands out for her; they have all been memorable. “I am a real people person and thrive in an environment where I am meeting new and diverse individuals. Being deployed on operations gives me a sense of purpose and reinforces the point of difference being in the Army gives you. This is not a job, it is a lifestyle. That may sound corny but I believe it. You don’t join the Army to get rich and famous, you join to serve, to do good, and do the things you would never get to do in a ‘normal’ job.”

Today’s soldiers are facing the same challenges as New Zealand society. “The cost of living is very high compared to what it has been, and our remuneration has not kept pace with inflation. The soldiers and officers that have joined over the past three to four years are only now beginning to understand what it is like to be in the Army. Operation Protect (the staffing of Managed Isolation Facilities during COVID-19) was a different deployment, necessary, but challenging for our force. The attrition has left hollowness in the critical middle management level of our unit. We are very short of NCO’s and Captains to Majors. The flow on effect is a lack of coaching and mentoring. The day-to-day interactions with those level people is taken for granted when they are there, but the impact is felt acutely when they are not there.”

She is very proud of what 2nd Combat Service Support Battalion (2CSSB) can achieve. “We proved this spectacularly when the balloon went up after Tropical Cyclone Gabrielle.”

LTCOL Ropitini has four children from 13 to 23 and this helps keep her informed about what is important for that generation of soldiers. “As much as I can I try get out of my office and talk to the soldiers and young officers. I want them to know that it is really important for me to know them. To understand what their perception is about decisions, unit culture, and how we can do better. I might be the CO, but I certainly do not have all the good ideas and innovative thoughts.”

She is very much an active relaxer in her downtime, playing competitive hockey in Wellington. “It was pretty awesome last season, myself and my two daughters (14 and 18) played in the same team. All of my children are very sporty also, so watching them participate in their chosen sports is also good for the soul.”