More than 350 troops stood at attention in front of her. The retiring commander sat to her right, the adjutant general to her left. Friends, family and other members of the California National Guard’s 40th Infantry Division watched from behind as the historic moment unfolded at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos.
When Maj. Gen. Laura Yeager grabbed the flag pole during Saturday’s passing of the colors ceremony, she became the first woman to lead a U.S. Army infantry division, a journey that began in 1986 when she received her first commission through the ROTC program at Cal State Long Beach.
Yeager called it “an absolute honor to assume command of this great division”, which has sent troops to World War I, World War II, the Korean War and recently saw back-to-back deployments to Afghanistan. The California National Guard’s 40th Infantry Division has been led by men since it was formed in 1917.
“When I was a little girl, the women in my life were stay-at-home moms, and the women who worked were real estate agents, teachers, nurses and secretaries,” Yeager said during an interview days before the ceremony. “I didn’t see women doing the professions that we associated with men and none of those professions were anything I wanted to do.
“Not to discount the importance of those jobs, but I just couldn’t see myself in any of those jobs. So, I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then once I started doing the military training, and I found that I enjoyed it and that I had some proficiency at it, I thought I could do this. This could be my career.”
Yeager’s role model was her father, retired California National Guard Maj. Gen. Robert Brandt, a helicopter pilot who served two tours of Vietnam. Her husband, Curtis Yeager, is a retired lieutenant colonel.
“Her father, I think, is the proudest one here,” said her husband, Curtis Yeager, a retired lieutenant colonel. “I don’t think he expected his daughter to be a two-star general like himself.”
Yeager’s decision to enroll in the ROTC program was strictly money-driven. She was attending school at UC Irvine and needed a better-paying job to help pay for tuition, and perhaps land a scholarship.
“It was a bit challenging to do ROTC because I would take classes at UC Irvine and drive over to Cal State Long Beach, find a parking place that was very secluded and change into my uniform and go to classes,” she said.
The military training she received at Long Beach taught her to be more disciplined in her course work. Yeager graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and two master’s degrees – in marriage and family therapy from Chapman University and in strategic studies from the United States Army War College.
After college, Yeager completed military training and upon completion served as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter evacuation pilot. She was commissioned for active duty in the medical service corps and stationed at various places around the country.
After eight years of active duty, Yeager left the Army when her first of four sons were born but later continued her military career in the California National Guard.
Yeager was deployed to Iraq in 2011 as the deputy commander of the Cal Guard’s 40th Combat Aviation Brigade. She also has served as battalion commander of the 3rd Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment, and brigade commander of the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade.
As a high-ranking officer, Yeager said she has not faced any discrimination or difficulties. She said her mostly male peers, subordinates and superiors have treated her with respect.
“I think the Army, once you’re a part of it, you understand more, and it’s really all about can you pull your weight and can you do your job,” she said.