It’s one thing to take command of a room. Good public speakers know all about that.
It’s quite another to take command of 10,000 U.S. National Guard soldiers—men and women trained and poised for just about anything, from fighting enemy troops abroad to taming wildfires back home.
Maj. Gen. Laura Yeager, a former Toastmaster, has done both. She joined the United States military in 1986 and achieved an important “first” in June 2019, when she became the first woman to command a U.S. Army infantry division.
One of Yeager’s favorite activities at club meetings was Table Topics. She has put the practice to good use as a commander.
“There were several times during meetings when Table Topics focused on giving impromptu toasts and recognizing individuals for accomplishments,” she recalls. “This is a task that as a senior leader I am pleased to be able to do often. Getting experience in composing succinct and complimentary statements has been very valuable.”
Yeager now leads the Army National Guard’s 40th Infantry Division, based in her home state of California. The division includes 10,000 soldiers, mainly from the West Coast of the U.S. and areas such as Hawaii and Guam. In the U.S., Army National Guard soldiers generally live at home with family and serve part-time. They train at nearby bases one weekend a month plus two full weeks per year, usually during the summer. They can be called up to full-time active duty to bolster the regular Army during times of war and can be called into service in their respective states during emergencies like riots or natural disasters.
For Yeager, the new division command isn’t her first instance of military trailblazing. Prior to her current position, she was the first woman to lead the Texas-based Joint Task Force North. That force helps law-enforcement agencies stem the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S.
“Being able to effectively communicate is an essential skill in the military."—MAJ. GEN. LAURA YEAGER
She was also the first female to command the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade. In the U.S. Army, a brigade has between 4,000 and 5,000 troops. Trained as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, Yeager navigated her first combat deployment in 2011 in the Iraq War, flying medical evacuation missions in Iraq along with leading her soldiers. In collaboration with other commanders, she made tough decisions about when and where to fly.
The same unit was once commanded by her father, Robert Brandt, a retired U.S. major general who flew helicopters in the Vietnam War.
No Place for Gender Stereotypes
In today’s U.S. armed forces, traditional gender roles—and stereotypes—quickly fall by the wayside. The emphasis is on the ability to do the job, regardless of gender. By Yeager’s account, the egalitarian mindset has been in place much longer.
“In neither of my past positions did I ever feel that being a female was an advantage or disadvantage,” she notes. “I appreciate that I was treated simply as a soldier.”
In fact, while she does point to one key female mentor she’s had, she says the rest have been men.
“In my first assignment, my company commander was female and a great leader. She was a pilot, which is what I wanted to be. Seeing her having succeeded as a pilot was inspiring to me. All of my mentors since then have been male. My most important and trusted mentor has been my father.”
In the 1980s, she decided to join the Reserve Officers Training Corps—mainly to help pay for college. Her father was surprised at first, but then very supportive. “I never discussed serving in the military with my father,” she recalls. “I think he was more surprised than anyone that I decided to join. But once I did and pursued a career similar to his, he provided a great deal of encouragement and mentorship, and still does.”
“Warm, But A Warrior”
Yeager says she strives to embody Army values, such as loyalty, duty, and respect, and to serve as a role model for all soldiers. Indeed, she’s earned the respect and admiration of peers, subordinates, and superiors alike, judging from press reports of her promotion. Her colleague Lt. Col. Jonathan Shiroma told USA Today that Yeager’s appointment was an “exciting time for the California National Guard. She’s been a battalion commander, a brigade commander, and now a division commander. She’s earned it.”
It’s clear that many women service members find particular inspiration in her story.
At her historic installation as 40th Infantry Division commander in Los Alamitos, California, Capt. Gerrelaine Alcordo, a public affairs officer, told the Los Angeles Times that she had been thinking of leaving the service after 14 years but reconsidered after seeing Yeager’s success. “She’s … shown that the military has really opened up doors for women in the last 10 years,” says Alcordo. “She has this smile and warmness in her eyes, but she’s also a warrior.”
It’s not often that a person is described as being both “warm” and a “warrior,” but Yeager seems to fit the bill. This rare mix of qualities appears grounded in her education. Along with a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of California, Irvine, she holds a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Chapman University in Orange, California, and a second master’s in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Being a military commander does demand toughness, yet a dose of psychological insight never hurts.
“Leadership is all about people, so I have found my education to be relevant,” says Yeager. “Understanding what motivates people, whether they are your friends or your enemies, can be very useful when thinking strategically.”
Additionally, her background in counseling and therapy has strengthened her consideration for military families. Supporting family and communities is crucial to any military mission, Yeager explains.
“Understanding what motivates people, whether they are your friends or your enemies, can be very useful when thinking strategically.”—MAJ. GEN. LAURA YEAGER
Yeager is married to retired Lt. Col. Curtis Yeager, and the couple have four adult sons. She says her years in the National Guard, and earlier in her career in the Army Reserve, have allowed her to achieve a healthy work-life balance, given the ability to be based at home much of the time.
The Toastmasters Factor
As Yeager’s career progressed, more opportunities arose for public speaking. That motivated her to join Toastmasters. She earned the Competent Communicator designation as a member of the Grizzly Gabbers, a Toastmasters club based in Sacramento and sponsored by the California National Guard. She was active in the club between 2015 and 2019.
It seems speaking in front of an audience should be no big deal for a combat helicopter pilot. Yet Yeager doesn’t take the speaking challenge lightly. She fully understands the nervousness that accompanies public speaking for most people, civilians and soldiers alike.
“I absolutely can relate to that anxiety. The more I care about doing a good job on a presentation, the more anxiety I feel.”
Yeager has also come to appreciate how Toastmasters training, besides its role in developing good public speakers, improves communication in general.
“Being able to effectively communicate is an essential skill in the military that we do prioritize,” says Yeager. “The best way to improve is through repetition and by getting constructive feedback, which are opportunities provided by Toastmasters.”
Mitch Mirkin is a member and past president of Randallstown Network Toastmasters in Baltimore, Maryland. He works as a communicator for the research program of the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.