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Two-star general with O.C. roots retires after breaking Army’s glass ceiling

Maj. Gen. Laura Yeager hands off the 40th Infantry Division's battle colors to Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin on May 15.
Maj. Gen. Laura Yeager hands off the 40th Infantry Division’s battle colors to Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, adjutant general of California, during the change of command ceremony on May 15 at Camp Roberts, San Luis Obispo.
(Courtesy of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Lani Pascual, 40th Infantry Division)

A Fountain Valley native who rose through the ranks to become the first woman to lead a U.S. Army infantry division relinquished her command capping a 36-year military career Sunday.

Maj. Gen. Laura Yeager departs the Los Alamitos-based 40th Infantry Division after leading 10,000 soldiers from the Army National Guard who serve across the West Coast of the United States and as far away as Hawaii and Guam.

“This is the best assignment of my life and it’s such a joy for me to be able to leave this command and retire feeling like I’ve had the best job that I could ever have... Never did I envision myself here as a division commander,” Yeager said.

Maj. Gen. Michael Leeney, who previously served as Yeager’s deputy commander, received his second star and assumed command from Yeager during a ceremony at Camp Roberts near San Luis Obispo on Sunday. An Army National Guard artillery battery fired a celebratory volley for the new boss.

The 40th Infantry Division and California National Guard answered the governor’s call to assist the civilian response to the pandemic. California guardsmen have administered more than 250,000 COVID-19 tests, provided 2.5 million meals to communities, and distributed 1.4 million COVID-19 vaccines, Yeager said.

In March, Yeager traveled to Poland to visit Guardsmen deployed to train with and reassure NATO allies amid the Russian Federation’s invasion of Ukraine.

“As we’ve seen in Ukraine, there are powerful and reckless authoritarian dictators who absolutely hate the idea of democracy because it is proof their way has failed... Our strength and unity are the best deterrents against the threats they pose,” Yeager said Sunday.

Among Yeager’s other notable actions in her latest role was overseeing the activation of Guardsmen amid civil unrest across the state following the murder of George Floyd. Guardsmen patrolled streets in Los Angeles County, manned security barriers at Los Angeles City Hall, and protected critical infrastructure like power plants and ports.

The Guard has also been activated to assist with evacuations and suppression of multiple wildfires.

As the commander of soldiers who would be called to fight in the Pacific, Yeager also had a front-row seat in helping the U.S. Army plan for a potential conflict with the People’s Republic of China. Last year, Yeager visited U.S. soldiers amid artillery training with the Japan Ground Self-Defense during Orient Shield in Hokkaido, Japan.

Yeager’s educational and military career started in Orange County. Yeager graduated from Fountain Valley High School in 1982 and received her commission as a second lieutenant in 1986 from the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Cal State Long Beach.

At that time, the U.S. military banned women from serving in ground combat roles. Female Army aviators have since risen to the highest ranks of the service. Last year, Gen. Laura Richardson became the highest-ranking woman in the Army after President Joe Biden appointed her the boss of U.S. Southern Command.

Maj. Gen. Laura Yeager speaks during the 40th Infantry Division's change of command ceremony.
Maj. Gen. Laura Yeager speaks during the 40th Infantry Division’s change of command ceremony on May 15 at Camp Roberts, San Luis Obispo.
(Courtesy of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Lani Pascual, 40th Infantry Division)

After giving birth to her first son, Yeager temporarily retired from active duty after eight years in the U.S. Army. She later resumed her active military career in the California Army National Guard.

Yeager has served as a Black Hawk helicopter aeromedical evacuation pilot and in 2011 was deployed to Iraq as deputy commander of the California Guard’s 40th Combat Aviation Brigade.

With two deployments to Afghanistan and another to Sinai, Egypt, Leeney brings extensive leadership experience from over 34 years as an active-duty soldier and National Guard member.

“General Leeney congratulations… you’re a talented leader and the force is strong in you. I know that the Division is in very capable hands,” said Yeager, getting chuckles from audience members for her apparent Star Wars reference.

Yeager thanked her husband, retired Lt. Col. Curtis Yeager, for carrying the extra load at home with their kids. She remarked that he’ll be happy to no longer have to keep up with her busy travel schedule.

“I’ve put folks through the wringer quite a number of times. There’s vacations where you really can’t have a vacation because you’re on your phone all the time. So those days are over for me. I’ll focus on enjoying my family and spending time with the grandkids,” Yeager said.

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