10 Questions: Melissa McCafferty (MI ’10)

Melissa McCaffertyQuestion 1.       What got you interested in the Coast Guard?

I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which is of course surrounded by Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and Lake Huron. The Coast Guard has an enormous presence in the community, most notably in the Soo locks during ice-breaking season. When I was 12, I was lucky enough to embark one of the cutters (the Coast Guard calls our vessel cutters, not ships due to our time spent in the Revenue Cutter Service during the 18th century) and spend a day watching the crew tend buoys and conduct waterway missions – they even let me pilot the cutter for a bit! That voyage is what piqued my interest in the CG and ultimately guided my decision to apply for the Academy and commission as an Officer in the Coast Guard.

2.       What is your favorite thing about being in the Coast Guard?

I love how small and multi-faceted our service is. With 11 congressionally mandated missions, we do so many things for the American public on a day-to-day basis that I am continually amazed at how much we are able to accomplish with what little we actually have.

With less than 41,700 active duty men and women, we skillfully balance our scarce resources and limited personnel in order to execute the myriad missions confronting us. At any given point in time, we are screening hundreds of ships entering American ports, protecting critical maritime infrastructure, saving lives of distressed mariners, interdicting drug runners, rescuing immigrants stranded at sea, and protecting our environment from hazardous substances.

Our go-to attitude is what makes going to work every day so enjoyable. As the smallest of the armed forces, we remain humble, proud, and inspired by our rich maritime history. To put our size into perspective relative to the other branches, I have listed their total (approximate) active duty workforce: the Air Force has 329,500 members; the Army 510,400; the Navy 327,814; and the Marine Corps 183,700.

3.       Your least favorite thing?

Being a member of the Coast Guard – and in general a member of any of the services – can be incredibly taxing on your personal life. Just imagine uprooting your spouse and family every two to three years and starting anew. While I am not married nor do I have children, I do understand the strain this puts on having a so-called normal life after witnessing countless families undergoing the same.

When I was younger and just out of the Academy, the travelling was fun because you were able to meet different people and experience new ports. Now as I grow older and shift what I value, I am increasingly searching to find a place where I can meet that someone, settle down, and call home. Of course, my personal desires may be at odds with the needs of the service so figuring out how to juggle a personal life with that of a professional career will continue to be a challenge.

4.       How do you feel being a Truman Scholar has or has not affected your experience as a member of the CG?

The Coast Guard values critical and strategic thinking no matter how junior or senior of a member you may be. I think this is unique to our service and one trait that I truly admire. Because of this, I feel as though being a Truman Scholar merely complements our organization’s values.

Since receiving the scholarship, I have able to pursue opportunities offered by the Foundation in tandem with executing my duties and responsibilities as an Officer. With the support of senior executive staff, I was able to attend Summer Institute while my Academy peers reported to their first units. While in DC, I served as a Truman Fellow at the U.S. Department of State in the Bureau of Counterterrorism. There, I saw first-hand the relationship between diplomacy and the use of force, returning to the fleet with a richer understanding of our relationship not only with State, but with non- military bureaus as well. Fostering these relationships will be critical for the Coast Guard as it continues to develop smarter and more efficient ways to address the dynamic challenges stemming from a multi-polar 21st century world.

5.       Do you feel your gender has had any impact on your experience in the CG?

I find that the Coast Guard tends to be an inclusive and supportive community regardless of gender. I am still amazed that in the 21st century, we are the only service where women can serve in any billet regardless of their gender. I firmly believe that all rates in the armed forces ought to be open to everyone regardless of gender. Either you meet the qualifications or you do not; you perform the mission or you do not. In all cases, gender is irrelevant.

With this in mind, I do think there remains room to make incremental improvements. When officers graduate from the Academy, they are obligated by law to serve a five-year ‘payback’ tour. When this five-year window is over, a significant portion of women leave the service. These numbers continue to precipitously decline as time in service increases. The Coast Guard and the other services must do a better job at retaining mid to senior level women. While dialogues are occurring internally, there must be a greater conversation as a society.

How we as a nation view the role of women, particularly in leadership roles, dictates our future ability to attract and retain the best talent. In this capacity, the armed forces are no different than the executive suites of Fortune 500 companies.

6.       What is a funny story you have from your experience in the CG?

This was a tricky one. I think a good story that is not necessary funny is from my time onboard the CGC BERNARD C. WEBBER, a fast response cutter out of Miami, FL. When crews are underway, you are either conducting missions or resting in-between missions. On the rare occasion where there is nothing to do, the crews have a swim call. We happened to be in the South Atlantic in some absolutely beautiful and calm weather when we cut the engines and decided to go swimming. One convenient thing about our cutter is that we have a stern gate that can rise to deploy a small boat moored inside the hull of the cutter. With this gate raised, it can also double as a diving platform. So in the middle of the ocean – without a vessel or land in sight – we went diving off our ship and swimming in some absolutely beautiful weather.

If you have never experienced being completely alone and staring into the limitless depth of the sea, it is stunning. The darkness and mystery of the ocean continues to command my respect, and while I am awestruck with its latent beauty, I am also cautious of the perils that befall those who attempt to tame it.

7.       What is the most upsetting thing to happen to you while in the CG?

This is a very personal question and one where I must emphasize that my views are not reflective of the service itself and are my own opinion.

I would have to say conducting counter-immigration in the Florida straits has been the most unsettling thing I have done while in the CG. Working out of Miami is a hotbed for illegal immigration due to the short distance between two critical transit points: (1) the Bahamas and Miami and (2) Cuba and the Keys. During my time in Miami, we interdicted hundreds of people from different countries including but not limited to Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Columbia, Jamaica, China, India, Indonesia, and more.

What I can say of my experiences is this: there is nothing more heartbreaking than witnessing men, women, and children so determined for a better life that they put their faith in haphazard vessels pieced together with whatever material they can find in the hopes that they will successfully transit the dangerous and unpredictable seas and find a better life.

Each time we interdicted a vessel, I would inevitably see people in their most desperate and vulnerable state, clinging to gunnels as they would to hope. I distinctly remember one Haitian family composed of two brothers and an eight-month old girl. They had been drifting in the ocean for some time and when we found them, they were severely dehydrated and jaundiced from malnutrition. Once onboard, the man handed me a note penned in French and English asking from one human being to another, to let them go. When I explained that I could not, the man begged me to take his daughter, promising that he and his brother would stay behind instead.

It is in gut-wrenching moments like this where you take stock in humanity and in yourself. Each time we embarked migrants, I would inevitably feel guilty because my life had been a by-product of chance. I was lucky to be born in a country where my family didn’t have to flee from oppression or poverty. I was lucky to be blessed with opportunities to make a better life for myself and in the process, for those around me and suddenly, here I was standing on a the deck of a cutter looking at these lost men and women and wondering how we as a society can be so removed from their struggle.

I cannot help but feel frustrated by the inaction in Congress and our inability to find a better solution. I cannot help but feel infuriated by the hateful rhetoric espoused by pundits who stand safely by their podiums during raucous debates. Until you stand in our shoes and lend a hand to the most desperate and vulnerable of humankind, it is easy to remove yourself from the very real struggle that underpins illegal immigration. I argue for having those hard and real discussions, however unpleasant they may be.

8.       How do you feel your role in the CG is relevant to recent political events i.e. terrorism, homeland security, immigration/refugees?

With 11 statutory missions, the Coast Guard undoubtedly is relevant to recent political events. For example, in anticipation of the removal of the oil export ban, we have been preparing the Port of Houston, the Port of Galveston, the Port of Texas City, and the Port of Beaumont to handle the influx of tankers that will come into their ports to receive crude oil. This requires extensive planning from both a preventative standpoint and a response. Not only are we required to have the requisite number of personnel to conduct safety exams, we are also required to have the proper resources on hand should an emergency arise that requires a maritime response.

Another great example is homeland security. Houston is one of the largest chemical ports in the world, which means there is a very real possibility that our maritime infrastructure is being targeted as a form of chemical weaponry. The Coast Guard is the first and last line defense for the homeland and so we are always working in tandem with federal, state, and local partners to ensure the ports, and by proxy, the public remains safe. This includes vetting intelligence leads, ensuring armed escorts for highly explosive ships, screening foreign ships to ensure crew members are not on the terror watch list, and more.

9.       How do you define the role of the CG today and do you think it is fulfilling this role?

It is said that the Coast Guard is America’s best kept secret. While this is laudable, it also signifies how overshadowed the Coast Guard is in comparison to the other armed services. I firmly believe we are one of America’s best investments. Given the breadth of missions we perform and the limited resources with which we do it, we remain great stewards of public funds and an investment with excellent returns.

As we confront the challenges of the 21st century, I believe the dual humanitarian and defense nature of the Coast Guard is best suited to dynamically address these challenges. While I believe we are fulfilling our role, with increased assets and resources, we can accomplish even more. My hope is that the Coast Guard becomes the premier Homeland Security agency, providing multi-mission support by land, sea, and air.


Note: The views expressed in this interview are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the United States Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security, or federal government.

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