First woman to lead a U.S. Army infantry division forged a 'narrow path' to leadership

The military unit was formed in September 1917 as the United States entered World War I and has since deployed soldiers in World War II, the Korean War, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

First woman to lead a U.S. Army infantry division forged a 'narrow path' to leadership

This month, Brig. Gen. Laura Yeager, a decorated helicopter pilot who navigated a narrow path to leadership, will take command of the 40th Infantry Division in the California National Guard, a unit that has been helmed by men for more than 100 years, according to a news release.

“Throughout my career, I have been mentored by many great officers and noncommissioned officers,” Yeager wrote in an email to The New York Times. “They never once treated me differently because I was female, which is exactly how it should be and how I wanted to be treated.”

On June 29, in a ceremony at Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, California, Yeager will take command of the division from Maj. Gen. Mark Malanka, who is retiring.

The military unit was formed in September 1917 as the United States entered World War I and has since deployed soldiers in World War II, the Korean War, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

“My most important responsibility,” she said of her new position, “is ensuring my soldiers are ready to fight and win our nation’s wars while also being prepared to serve the citizens of California during natural disasters.”

The representation of women in the armed services remains small and is growing only marginally. In 2017, women made up 16% of active-duty military personnel across the armed services.

Servicewomen like Yeager are paving avenues for themselves, and for the next generation, as they rise to positions that were once impossible to obtain.

Yeager, who began her active-duty military service in May 1986 and completed military helicopter training, has received the Legion of Merit, a Bronze Star and a Meritorious Service Medal, among other awards.

She served on active duty for eight years and later continued her military career in the California Army National Guard.

During a deployment to Iraq in 2011, Yeager flew UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and later commanded the California National Guard’s 40th Combat Aviation Brigade, which her father once led.

In 2016, she became the fourth woman in the California National Guard to rise to the rank of general.

“Clearly, females are in the minority within the military, yet in every assignment I have held, my mostly male peers, subordinates and superiors have supported me, treated me with respect, coached, mentored and advised me,” she said in an interview with the Defense Department’s news service that year. “At the same time, I have been inspired by the incredibly strong and amazing women I have served with and for. Needless to say, I would not have achieved this rank without every one of them.”

Until this week, Yeager was the commander of Joint Task Force North, U.S. Northern Command at Fort Bliss, Texas.

Yeager said her 24-year-old son, Scott, a specialist in the Army Reserve, “wasn’t surprised” at her promotion and said her husband, a retired lieutenant colonel, and her father, a fellow helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam, were “very proud.”

“Since they have all served in the Army, they know it is a very narrow path to make it to this point,” she added.

“I heard someone say a long time ago that ‘you have to see it to be it,’” Yeager said. “I think there is truth to the idea it is easier to imagine yourself accomplishing a goal when you see someone that looks like you has succeeded.

“However,” she continued, “I encourage everyone who works for me, whether they are male or female, to show up on time every day, ready to do the mission and preparing themselves for the next challenge.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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