Courtesy Coast Guard Reservist Magazine
Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Lopez del Castillo, a member of Station Miami Beach, Fla., is a veritable trove of local knowledge for her unit.
Born to a Cuban immigrant and a fourth-generation Floridian, she grew up in Miami and developed a love for the sea, perhaps from a grandfather who was a ship captain. She’d been working in a Miami suburb as dispatcher with the Coral Gables Police and Fire Department for four years when she decided to enlist in the Coast Guard reserve in 2010.
She landed at Station Miami Beach after eight weeks of boot camp, and a fellow reservist told her that, given her background in public service and love of law enforcement, she’d be a great boatswain’s mate.
“I came back from boot camp, reported that Monday, did my two weeks, and it’s been great ever since,” said Lopez del Castillo, who’s been a member of the station for the last 11 years. Over her decade-plus of history there, she’s become a force multiplier for the unit, earning certifications as a 45-foot response boat-medium coxswain, a 33-foot special purpose craft coxswain, and a boarding team member, and training the newest boat crew members and coxswains.
“They say public service attracts the people who love high-energy, and I’m drawn to public service,” said Lopez del Castillo. “I love helping people.”
As she gained understanding of the Coast Guard’s roles and responsibilities, she leveraged her experience working at the 911 center, fostered ties to the first-responder community, and passed on her knowledge of the local area of responsibility.
When the pandemic hit last year, calls to the 911 center increased, as did the stress level. As the supervisor for the 911 center, she managed the stress of the people inside as much as they were helping the city manage the stress around them.
Concurrently, understanding of the transmission and signs of COVID-19 were driving changes to the local laws and regulations, and Lopez del Castillo continued to keep her command informed so boat crews could enforce the correct standards on the water.
“It was so helpful, knowing those laws and what was changing on a day-to-day basis,” said Lopez del Castillo. “I already knew the regulations, like, for example, Miami-Dade says you can’t moor up more than two boats together; 10 people on a boat—that’s maximum—that’s Miami-Dade ordinance.”
She joked about her ability to rattle off local laws, ingrained by weeks and months of repetitive communication with the public as a 911 supervisor. “It’s really a plus to keep the reservists [stationed] around the area they’re from,” she said. “They know the area, the know how things run.”
As COVID-19 infections ramped up, Station Miami Beach brought reservists on to help continue operations when their active duty members needed to quarantine. Lopez del Castillo, who was qualified as a coxswain on two platforms, left the 911 call center to take a set of 60-day Title 10 military orders.
She agreed to remain on active duty for another three months to assist with transfer season, which, combined with the pandemic, would have left the station with critical personnel gaps.
Trading one fast-paced job for another, Lopez del Castillo slid into the role of assistant operations petty officer at the station. There, she helped manage the unit’s 75 members, five vessels, boardings, cases, and numerous high-profile operations.
“This station is non-stop, 24 hours, seven days; it’s easy to get lost,” she said with a laugh. “My first week of active duty, I had a headache trying to wrap my head around all the moving pieces, but I learned it.”
Her dispatch experience carried over well, especially with record-keeping and watch-standing, and she took time to relay to the station’s personnel the experience of their fellow first-responders in the community—how they think, train, and operate.
In this way, Lopez del Castillo reiterated that the Coast Guard’s reservists are a crucial tie between the local command and the citizens and law enforcement partners in the community.
“Each team member or agency brings something different to the table, and it’s my job as a 911 supervisor and a coxswain to use them correctly,” she said.
Over the following months, the pace of operations never waned, and Lopez del Castillo remained on active duty for a year. At the conclusion of her time on orders, she was awarded the Coast Guard Achievement Medal by Station Miami Beach.
Lopez del Castillo recently transitioned to the Miami Beach Fire Department as their emergency management coordinator, but maintains readiness for the next operation with her Coast Guard station.
“The wonderful thing about it is the teamwork and the command,” said Lopez del Castillo. “Our relationship is like a family.”