Irene Aurelia Meyers Rich was born in Los Angeles, California, on 20 October 1950. The family moved to Anchorage, Alaska, when Rich was nine, and she graduated from East Anchorage High School in 1968. She attended one year of college at Arizona State University before transferring to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG). Rich graduated from UNCG with a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1972.
Rich joined the Army Nurse Corps through the Student Nurse Program in June 1971 and went on active duty in June 1972. She attended basic training at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, and was then sent to the hospital at Fort Benning, Georgia, where she worked in obstetrics through 1974. From 1975 to 1978, Rich and her husband, who was also in the army, were stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii, where Rich worked in obstetrics at Tripler Army Medical Center.
Rich earned a master’s degree in nursing from Vanderbilt University in 1984 was then stationed with her husband in Nuremberg, Germany, from 1985 to 1988. There Rich oversaw nursing in health clinics in the surrounding area for two years and worked as head nurse in obstetrics at the main Nuremberg Hospital for two years.
In 1993, Rich earned a Ph.D. in nursing science from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and became involved in research. During the early 1990s, she served as the assistant chief of the Nursing Research Service at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. From 1994 to 1998, Rich was stationed at Fort Detrick, Maryland, as director of the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program. She retired in May 1999. Following her military service, Rich worked briefly on a substance abuse research project, served as a parish nurse, and was an incident coordinator for the Fairfax County Medical Reserve Corps.