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Decades Later, Coast Guard SPARs’ Veteran Finds Pride in Her Service

75-year-old reservist was one of the few women to serve with Coast Guard during Vietnam War

WW2 female recruitment poster: Join the SPARS, Women's Reserve - US Coast Guard (USCG), 1941-1945: alongside a service photo of a young diane haston wagener
incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo / Courtesy Diane Wagener

While it wasn’t until 2016 that women began serving in direct ground combat, generations of women worked alongside service members, especially as nurses, since as early as the Revolutionary War. ​

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Opportunities for women to serve remained limited until World War II, however, when the number of men fighting overseas left a huge void that needed to be filled.

​​Military leaders turned to women to step into some noncombat roles. In all, 350,000 American women served in uniform during World War II. This shift culminated in the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, signed on June 12, 1948, which allowed women to serve officially in all four branches of the armed forces.​​

Within the Coast Guard, more than 10,000 women volunteered during World War II for the Women’s Reserve, also known as the SPARs, which stood for “Semper Paratus — Always Ready.” But like most women’s units at the time, the SPARs were not intended to be a permanent branch of the military and were deactivated soon after the war ended.​

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The second wave of SPARs​​

However, the SPARs were activated again amid the Vietnam War, but recruited only 75 women. ​​

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Women’s Branches of Service During WWII​

  • Army: Women’s Army Corps (WAC)​
  • Navy: Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES)​
  • Coast Guard: Semper Paratus—Always Ready (SPARS)​
  • Marines: Marine Corps Women’s Reserve​
  • Air Force: Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)

Source: United Service Organizations (USO)

Diane Haston Wagener enlisted in the SPARs in 1965 after her mother mentioned seeing the opportunity on TV. Her tenure would include one year of active duty followed by two years in the active reserves, which meant she would work on the weekends outside of her regular job.​​“There weren’t a lot of jobs open to women back then. And I wanted to attend college, but there was no local college in a small town in Nebraska,” she said. “My parents just did not have the money at that time to send me to college.”​

At boot camp, Wagener said, she didn’t have to shoot a weapon but experienced routine marches while getting yelled at and had to line up for count offs while making sure her uniform was pressed and properly worn. ​

“It didn’t bother me. Some young women got homesick. It was their first time away from their parents,” she said. “I remember in the barracks at night, I’d hear all this sniffling, young women crying and everything.”​

After completing basic training, women were given the option of serving either as a yeoman, completing administrative duties, or as a storekeeper onshore in the Coast Guard's district office of their choice.

Wagener chose to be a storekeeper and was trained on how to perform tasks that she compared to a government accounting job.​

“They treated us really well because we were unique and different, and very few women were still in the reserve at that time. There hadn’t been women in the Coast Guard schools since WWII.”​

However, once she got married, Wagener was honorably discharged in 1966 because she would need to move away with her new husband. ​

Life after service​

After being discharged Wagener avoided going to veterans’ events because she didn’t think there was anything special about her service as a clerical worker.​

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former SPAR Diane Haston Wagener, 75, of Beebe, Arkansas
Courtesy Diane Haston Wagener

“Here’s the funny part: We were learning the names of nautical names on a ship. And we never got on one,” she said. “I think one time we went on a small Coast Guard vessel. And we were calling the stairs, the ladder ... all saying the nautical terms. We were not allowed by law to do anything.”​

Decades passed until she attended a veteran event for the first time in 1997 at the Military Women’s Memorial’s opening at Arlington National Cemetery.​

For her, the site is one of the few military veteran spaces where she feels comfortable talking with other service members.​

“I hate to say this, but places like the VFW where male veterans go and talk about war stories and drink, that’s not a place I’d ever want to go to. In my experience the hardest thing I did was go to boot camp,” she said.​​Had the option been available, Wagener would have preferred to have served on a cutter vessel or an airplane, she said, "but not as a pilot."​

“I really thought my service was not helping the U.S. I mean, I really didn’t have much pride in it because I felt like I really hadn’t done anything. But actually, we did; we were paving the way for other women to be able to do all the occupations in the military. But, we didn’t know that then.”​ ​

In early June Wagener returned to the Washington, D.C., area to visit the newly renovated Military Women’s Memorial, and was among the first to see it since it reopened to the public. ​​She also attended the induction of the new Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Linda Fagan, the first woman to lead the Coast Guard or any branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. Today, of the nearly 40,000 active-duty service members in the Coast Guard, more than 5,800 are women.

​​“I had been waiting for this for a long time,” Wagener said. “I didn’t think it was going to take 50 years or more.”

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