As a young girl growing up in the rolling hills of southern Indiana, Elaine Wagner wasn’t likely to hear the call of the high seas. But life can take you in directions far removed from childhood dreams and expectations.
Wagner—then known by her maiden name, Elaine Campbell—turned a youthful interest in the sciences into a career arc that includes graduation from the IU School of Dentistry (IUSD) in 1980, brief stints at the Riley Hospital for Children and in private dental practice, and ultimately a stellar career in the United States Navy, which started in 1983.
She is now Rear Admiral Elaine Wagner of the U.S. Navy, and holds three major posts in the service. She is the 36th chief of the 100-year-old Navy Dental Corps, and also is the commander of Navy Medicine East and Naval Medical Center Portsmouth.
Those three areas of responsibility keep Wagner busy, involved constantly in big-picture decisions—and best of all, engaged with other professionals. And that fulfills what she sought when she joined the Navy.
Big Learning Curve
“After graduation, I went into private practice by myself and found it lonely,” says Wagner, who missed the professional interaction she had enjoyed at school and at Riley as a pediatric dentist. She looked at other options, and the U.S. Navy seemed a good choice. But fitting into Navy life didn’t come quickly or easily.
“It was a relatively big learning curve,” she admits with a chuckle. “I was familiar with the way hospitals worked and how things fit together, and it turned out there were a lot of similarities in the Navy.” That included a growing focus on “efficiencies and outcomes,” two key principles she learned at dental school and at Riley.
Her dental school education paid another dividend. “My time in school at IUPUI gave me the ability to adapt on the fly,” Wagner says. “I had a lot of talented, smart mentors at school who taught us how to think through problems and situations. I’ve used the things I learned from them throughout my career.”
The admiral admits that several of her character traits have served her well throughout her rise through the Navy’s ranks. “I’m a detail-oriented person, kind of compulsive,” she laughs. “My skills and that approach work well in dentistry, and they also work in Navy leadership.”
Wagner is grateful for her academic training—and that she chose IUPUI. “I went to a big high school (Bloomington South), then chose a smaller university in Butler,” Wagner says. “I was familiar with IUPUI and especially with the quality of the school. And it helped that Indianapolis is one of my favorite places! The best option turned out to be the closest one.”
During more than 29 years in the service, Wagner has served at posts throughout the United States—from the far west (San Diego), to the northeast (New England), to the southeast (Jacksonville and Beaufort, S.C.), with several stops in the Washington, D.C., area along the way. It’s been a busy career path that has included six moves in one seven-year period for her and her airline pilot husband, Greg.
Climbing Through the Ranks
Each stop enhanced her knowledge and expertise, and contributed to her climb to her promotion to admiral. The impact of those experiences made Wagner a valuable administrator and afforded her many opportunities. “The higher you get up the ladder, you realize how much of a difference you can make, and for a greater number of people,” Wagner says.
She is particularly pleased that the Navy is committed to advancing medical training for all health-care personnel. “We have a lot of unbelievably bright officers who have accepted our scholarship offers, and it is really changing the nature of dentistry in the Navy,” Wagner says.
Last spring, Wagner returned to Indianapolis to speak at the dental school’s Commencement ceremonies. “I was thrilled to have that opportunity at my alma mater,” Wagner says. And she was just as pleased by what came next. “Even better, I got to swear in two young men from last year’s class into the Navy—that was the icing on the cake!”
Wagner also has adjusted well to expanding her personal horizons to include medical as well as dental operations, which includes Portsmouth, the oldest continuously running hospital in the Navy’s medical system.
“There is a lot to learn about running an operation of that size, but it’s been tremendously rewarding for me,” she says. Wagner has been impressed—but not surprised—with the level of care her staff offers at the historic facility. “Everyone here understands how important it is to provide the very best care we can for our personnel—for our wounded warriors and for their families,” she adds. “The feeling of caring for our people is special! It’s a constant source of satisfaction and pride around all our facilities.”
Wagner is amazed at the arc her career has followed. “I never in a million years would have thought I would end up where I am,” she laughs. “You don’t get anyplace in the Navy by yourself—I’m very grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had!”
She isn’t ready for it to end anytime soon, either. “I hope I don’t go anywhere else for a while, because I love this job! It’s the best job I’ve ever had.”