Brig. Gen. Laura Yeager has seen a lot in her 30-plus years in the military, including a couple of stops at Fort Bliss. Yeager, 54, took command of Joint Task Force North at Fort Bliss in October 2017. Her two-year assignment is coming to a close when the command changes hands on June 10.
Yeager began her military career in her native California in 1986. She will be returning there to lead the California National Guard and its 13,000 soldiers. She will also take command of the 40th Infantry Division.
“It’s pretty exciting to go from one command to another command. I’m beyond thrilled for that,” Yeager told El Paso Inc.
The mission of Joint Task Force North is to support law enforcement agencies in their efforts to stop the flow of illegal drugs and crime operations into the United States. Partners include Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Drug Enforcement Agency.
El Paso Inc. spoke with Yeager at her office on Fort Bliss about the surge of migrants crossing the border, how cartels have diversified, being a woman in the military and what she will miss about El Paso.
Q: You’re the first woman to lead Joint Task Force North. What does that mean for the task force, for the Army and for you?
I get that question a lot, as I’ve risen through the ranks. I always look at it the same way: I’m a soldier first. I usually don’t even notice I’m female in an environment where there’s mostly males. I show up and do the work and I don’t even think of it.
But I know for many organizations it’s historic to have the first female. I know for women to see other women rising through the ranks and have role models, it is important. I heard a saying a while back, “you have to see it to be it.” Sometimes it’s hard to imagine you can do these jobs unless you see someone else doing it. But day to day it’s not a factor. I don’t really notice.
Q: What work do you do here on the border with other law enforcement agencies?
We’re always in support. We get requests from agencies for capabilities they either lack or don’t have sufficient quantities of. What we do is go back to the active component, in some cases the reserves, and look for those capabilities, and bring those capabilities to provide that additional capability to our partner.
It’s an exciting mission. It’s a win-win because not only do we help secure the border and prevent the flow of illicit drugs into the country, but the units that participate get a lot out of it, too. They come down and do their wartime missions. A data point we’ve been tracking over the last year is the difference of when the unit starts the mission support and when they complete the mission support.
On average we’ve seen a 42% increase in the readiness to do the wartime mission based on what they do for us. It’s everything from military working dogs to road construction. There’s aviation, aerial detection and monitoring.
Q: Is the migrant situation at the border affecting the work of Joint Task Force North?
In an indirect way it does. One of our closest partners is Border Patrol. We get a lot of support requests from the Border Patrol to provide them additional capability. Right now, the number of migrants is very overwhelming to them, and that limits our ability to work with them.
They’re focused on the migrants. Our focus is on the drugs. They have to make choices. That does kind of influence a little what we’re able to do with them on the counter-narcotics front, just because they’re so focused on processing this unprecedented number of people coming across the border. Indirectly it does (affect us), but the migration piece is not at all of interest to us here in this mission.
Q: Did your experience as director of joint staff for the California Joint Force Headquarters prepare you for this role?
That was the job I held before coming here. It really helped prepare me for this assignment because within my portfolio was the state’s counter-drug program. The Department of Defense does counter-drug activities both with the active component and in the reserves and National Guard. So I was very familiar with the National Guard side.
California is one of those states along the southern border so we had a very robust program. I already knew a lot of the people who are in this network of agencies that are countering the flow of drugs into the country, so it prepared me well. I also had responsibility for state response to other contingencies like wildfires. It’s a very busy job, and it’s exciting to go back and do that position.
Q: North Loop Elementary School is Joint Task Force North’s partner in education of about 20 years. What do you do there?
We’ve had a longstanding relationship with North Loop. For a small organization, we devote a lot of time volunteering in the community. That partnership with North Loop is really special. It’s a pretty large number of hours. It’s everything from reading to the kids to serving food on Thanksgiving, and literacy events. We get so much out of that relationship. The staff over there and the kids are just amazing. They’re just wonderful.
Q: You’ve said many of the turning points in your military career have come in Texas. Where does El Paso fit in?
Over the years I’ve been stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Fort Bliss a couple of times, Fort Hood. I was in the Texas National Guard for a couple of years, as well. Texas is almost like a second home for me.
When my husband retired, we considered retiring in Texas. It definitely holds a special place for us. My son was born in San Antonio. But I didn’t really know anything about Fort Bliss until I got here a couple of years ago. I feel like what a shame it is, because it’s a great community and a fantastic installation. In the Army I think that’s not well-known.
I think if more soldiers knew what a great assignment this is, they’d put it high on their list when given the opportunity to relocate. I’ve enjoyed it so much.
Q: What do you like about El Paso? What are you going to miss?
The first thing is the food. As soon as I eat a meal I’m thinking about what I’m going to eat for the next meal. It’s everything from barbeque to great steaks, and obviously the Mexican food. I’ve really enjoyed the Chihuahuas and going to the games. That’s been a lot of fun. I’ve been to the El Paso Museum of Art a few times, and I think that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s a very nice collection of art and they do a lot of events.
The Downtown area, in the couple of years I’ve been here, I’ve noticed a lot of construction projects making the Downtown area even more vibrant and interesting. The university is great. We’ve done some things with UTEP. The whole community has so much to offer. People come here and fall in love with it. It’s a remarkably big city that has a small, community feel to it. Everywhere I go, people are so incredibly friendly.
Q: Do you feel there’s a disconnect between Fort Bliss and El Paso, or is it all one big community?
I couldn’t imagine there being a stronger bond. I’ve been to other installations. In those communities they always appreciate the jobs and revenue that the military brings in. But here, it’s not about the jobs and revenue. It’s a sincere and genuine hospitality that exists between the installation and the community. It’s almost like there’s no line between the two entities. It’s really kind of seamless.
Q: Some states are decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana. Does that affect the work of the task force?
I’m from California. In California, it’s legal. Because it’s been legalized, it’s less lucrative for the drug cartels. They’ve moved into other products, which are more dangerous. Methamphetamine and the fentanyl are becoming more prevalent, because the value of the drugs is greater.
Q: So have the cartels shifted away from marijuana completely?
They have. They’ve shifted away and into products that are frankly more dangerous. More people are dying from overdoses related to methamphetamine and fentanyl. Marijuana is not typically a drug that people die from using. However in some cases, marijuana has been found to be laced with fentanyl or other substances. There’s really no safe drug at this point.
The cartels are businesses, so they’ve diversified their portfolios and are getting into those other markets. They also play a role in the smuggling of people across the border, and profit from that as well. It’s kind of an unintended consequence of legalizing marijuana that this has happened. Most of marijuana we’re seeing coming into the country is down toward south Texas, probably because it’s not legal in Texas, so there’s more of a market.
Q: What prompted you to join the military? What sparked your interest in this life and everything that comes with it?
My father was in the military, so there’s a little of that there. It never occured to me to join the military until I needed money for college. I talk to a lot of people in the military and that’s often the motivation that gets us in.
At the time, I was thinking I’d get the money for college and serve as long as I need to, as long as I’m enjoying it. It’s 34 years later and I still love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Sometimes I forget how long it’s been.
Q: Do you think women and young people should consider the military as a career?
The military, I think, a lot of women should consider it. It’s probably one of the few places where I make exactly the same amount of money as my male counterpart. From the time I was a lieutenant, I could support a family on my own income. The health care benefits, the education benefits and just the way that I’ve been treated.
There’s a lot of organizations that talk about equality, diversity and inclusion, but here I am, after all these years, and I’ve been able to rise to the top. They don’t just talk about it, they live it. They’ve given me opportunities to have these assignments and live these experiences.
Q: Did any of your children follow your path into a military career?
The youngest son is currently a reservist in the Army Reserve. The second youngest was an infantry officer. My daughter-in-law is a helicopter pilot, which is awesome. I used to be a helicopter pilot. I have a nephew in the Marine reserves.
I think every American who can should consider serving, even if it’s just for one enlistment. It makes you a better person. It really makes you understand what hardships are, what your limits are. You have opportunities to travel, to work with people from across the country who are professionals and patriots. I can’t speak highly enough of that.
Q: Are there any changes happening in Joint Task Forth North?
In the last couple of years we’ve changed the way we’ve done business in this organization. We’ve invested in providing intelligence-analyst support to our law enforcement partners, and that’s been an area they’ve been asking for it for a long time.
Last year we had five intelligence analysts we pushed out to support different agencies. This year we’re up to 21. The measurable results we’re seeing are huge. Last year we assisted in the interdiction of about $55 million worth of drugs, which is great. This year we’re up to just under $240 million. That’s directly relatable back to the intelligence-analyst support we’re providing. It’s a capability they asked for that they clearly needed, and we’re seeing the benefits of that.
Q: Joint Task Force North is made up of individuals and civilians from all parts of the military. What’s it like bringing all these people together and working together?
We’re about 160 people. About a third of us are Air Force civilians. We have some contractors. And the remaining are a mixture of Marines, sailors, airmen and soldiers from across the country. Each service has its own culture and strengths.
When you bring all that together, sometimes you have to learn. We communicate differently, we have different acronyms, so there’s a little bit of learning that goes on. Bringing all that together, when you have all these different people, it just compliments so well. It’s really amazing what we’re able to do with this very small organization.