Members Who Inspire

Coast Guard veteran speaks out for military sexual assault survivors

  •  
  •  
  •  
  • Print

Melissa McCafferty

Melissa McCafferty. (Photo courtesy of Melissa McCafferty)

In December, Melissa McCafferty sat before members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs and spoke candidly about the darkest times in her life.

While at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in the late 2000s, she was sexually assaulted by male cadets two separate times. She chose not to report the incidents, fearing no one would care or that she would face discipline.

“My fears were not unfounded; I later witnessed the restriction of a classmate who was brave enough to report a rape,” McCafferty said during the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations’ hearing on sexual assault and harassment at the academy. “To add insult to injury, senior leaders at the academy permitted her rapist to graduate and to receive his commission.”

McCafferty testified alongside other former and current Coast Guard officers and cadets that sexual harassment and assault didn’t stop at the academy. During her military career, she served as a victim advocate and supported several colleagues who were raped but struggled to get help.

“The emotional toll of Coast Guard missions is hard enough to bear without incurring the additional damage inflicted by senior leaders who know what is wrong but fail to take any action,” McCafferty said in her written testimony. She medically retired from the Coast Guard in 2019 for sustained post-traumatic stress disorder and is now a law clerk at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, D.C. “I fear that the cost of their failure has endangered the mental and physical health of too many women and men in the Coast Guard.”

Christine Wilson was a commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission when she met and hired McCafferty as an extern in 2022. She still mentors McCafferty—whom she refers to simply as a “badass”—and helped her prepare her Senate testimony.

“What she had written was compelling and poignant and needed very little input from me,” says Wilson, a senior advisor at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in Washington, D.C. “And then I went to the hearing to support her. The room was full of people supporting those brave women who agreed to testify on record, in public, about the heinous things that had gone on at the Coast Guard Academy and then in the service.”

Full service

McCafferty grew up in a small community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and was raised by her mother, who worked in the county health department. She learned the importance of public service, and from an early age she helped with food drives and participated in Girl Scouts and 4-H.

McCafferty credits her mother for inspiring her and her two siblings to do anything they wanted.

“She never told us what we needed to do,” McCafferty says. “She told us to pursue our passions and encouraged us to do that.”

McCafferty wanted to be a lawyer, but she also wanted to serve her community. She was thrilled when she discovered the Coast Guard and realized “the entire service is dedicated to helping people—not taking lives, not waging war, but helping people,” she says.

In 2011, she graduated from the Coast Guard Academy with a bachelor’s degree in political science. She had received a Truman Scholarship—named for President Harry S. Truman and supporting aspiring public service leaders—and became a fellow in what is now the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism.

After commissioning into the Coast Guard, McCafferty served aboard its first fast response cutter in the Sentinel class, the Coast Guard Cutter Bernard C. Webber. McCafferty, who was based in Miami and the third in command, helped organize missions to stop drug and human trafficking in the South Atlantic.

She also was responsible for enforcing immigration laws, which she considered the most heartbreaking part of the job. In one incident, she picked up two Haitian men who were traveling with a sick infant. They pleaded with her to keep the infant in the United States, but McCafferty couldn’t make that decision.

“People are out in the middle of the ocean, and they are half-starved and almost dead,” McCafferty says. “They are initially excited to see us, and then they’re devastated because we have to deport them. … The lengths people were willing to go to get to a better place really affected me.”

In 2013, McCafferty transferred to Houston, where she became a command duty officer and oversaw more than 1,200 cases involving search and rescue, marine inspections, port closures and pollution cleanups. She also was chair of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Task Force and coordinated and led the training to certify dozens of victim advocates in her area of operation.

McCafferty intended to go to law school and join the Coast Guard’s Judge Advocate General program, but in 2016 she was asked to instead work with the Commandant’s Advisory Group in Washington, D.C.

{ad-1)

The following year, she also was selected to serve as the deputy director of operations for Hurricane Harvey in Houston and director of operations for Hurricanes Irma and Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In leading the Coast Guard’s response to the disasters, she commanded more than 3,000 personnel and helped save nearly 17,000 lives.

“It reminded me why I was doing what I was doing,” says McCafferty, who received several awards during her military career, including the Capt. Dorothy Stratton Women’s Leadership Award. “They needed somebody who could operate at the scale I had operated, and I was one of the very few who could do it.”

But when McCafferty came home, she couldn’t stop thinking about what she witnessed. She also couldn’t stop thinking about how much her sexual assaults—and the sexual assaults of her colleagues—affected her.

In December 2017, McCafferty attempted suicide.

Finding her voice

McCafferty, who was revived at the hospital and diagnosed with severe and complex PTSD, shared her difficult journey to recovery with Senate leaders in December.

“I am lucky to be alive,” she said in her testimony. “For most of 2017 and 2018, I wanted to die more days than not. In the period of a year, I was institutionalized for 11 of the 12 months. Had I not been, I would have succeeded in killing myself.”

McCafferty says she became stable with the help of family, friends and medical providers. After her retirement, she worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, where she advised the Federal Emergency Management Agency on disaster prevention and recovery efforts while finishing her master’s degree in applied economics at Johns Hopkins University. She then began pursuing her JD at Georgetown University Law Center.

As a summer associate at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, she cultivated her interest in both antitrust law and pro bono work. In 2022, McCafferty asked pro bono partner Steven Schulman if the firm could work with No One Left Behind, a charitable organization helping to secure visas for former Afghan interpreters who were targeted by the Taliban.

Schulman, who says McCafferty possesses “a fantastic combination of directness and empathy,” was impressed she not only brought in a new matter but also pursued it without hesitation.

McCafferty was equally impressed with Schulman and the firm’s commitment to doing the right thing.

“Here I am, just a law student, reaching out to the head of pro bono, asking for help as a long shot,” McCafferty says. “He not only picked up the ball but lent the firm’s resources and attorneys to do what they could.”

Since graduating from Georgetown and joining the firm in October, McCafferty has assisted with other pro bono matters, including a discharge upgrade for a female veteran who experienced sexual trauma. She also received pro bono credit for the time spent on her Senate testimony as well as assistance from other attorneys and staff.

“Just knowing I have a good firm and a good network to support me during this has been invaluable,” says McCafferty, who joined the ABA during law school and serves as the young lawyer representative in the Antitrust Law Section. “I’m really looking forward to helping other people whenever I can.”

That includes continuing to advocate for military sexual assault survivors, says McCafferty, who lives in Washington, D.C., with her Cardigan Welsh Corgi, Tottie.

“By the time I left the Coast Guard, I felt I no longer had a voice,” she says. “I couldn’t advocate for anyone, let alone myself. … But I’m doing this now because there are people who are still in, who cannot speak up, because they’re so afraid of what will happen to them.”

This story was originally published in the June-July 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “‘Directness and Empathy’: Coast Guard veteran Melissa McCafferty speaks out for military sexual assault survivors.”


Members Who Inspire is an ABA Journal series profiling exceptional ABA members. If you know members who do unique and important work, you can nominate them for this series by emailing [email protected].

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.