From Firefighter & EMT to Coast Guard Judge Advocate: McKinney’s Public Service Path

Story by Dwain Hebda

Long before he entered the Clinton School of Public Service, Cody McKinney (’21) had already decided to live a life in service to others and his community. Watching his father and step-mother as educators, and his grandfather’s involvement in state and national politics, McKinney saw the satisfaction available from working to improve the lives of others. He decided to pursue a career that would make a difference.

“I had a chat with my step-uncle, my stepdad’s brother, and he told me the most rewarding and worthwhile thing he’d ever done was being a firefighter,” McKinney said. “I looked into what it took to become a firefighter, I went to a fire academy and got my EMT and that was the start of my success in post-high school education.”

McKinney would ultimately hire on with the Nags Head, N.C. Fire Department, where he stayed until 2018, then set about advancing his education, inspired by his wife. As a high school dropout, he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University in 2017 and then set his sights on graduate school. That led him to Little Rock.

“I felt I really wanted to go to law school, but I knew that I was leaving one very competitive profession and I was getting into another very competitive profession,” he said. “So, I was looking for dual degree programs and that is how I came upon the Clinton School. I knew pretty much that it was the program I wanted.”

McKinney said for as much of an adjustment as law school was, the transition from law school in Year One to the Clinton School in Year Two was even more so.

“Law school is unlike any other education that I’ve ever had in that it’s hyper-competitive. It was interesting,” he said. “I came from a profession where everything was team-based to this individual siloed style of education. Then, after that, I went to the Clinton School which was back to very much a group-based, practical application.

“It was almost like a whiplash going from a group setting career to the law school experience and back to a group practical-based curriculum.”

Nevertheless, McKinney said he enjoyed the Clinton School experience, as it broadened his knowledge and critical thinking skills in multiple ways.

“My experience was fantastic,” he said. “I found it stimulating and I feel like it helped me grow into a better public servant and a better public leader because it made me understand how to adapt my communication and my approach to different situations while being more aware of how that might affect people.”

“There is no growth without being pushed out of one’s comfort zone and I think the way the Clinton School does it is intentional and unique in that it focuses on best practice problem-solving with an awareness of the impact of your decisions. You have to be pushed in order to grow, and the Clinton School will do that.”

Even though his International Public Service Project – originally set for work in Kosovo – got derailed by the pandemic, he still benefited from working with the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas in their children’s program, finding pathways to citizenship for children who had been abused, neglected, and abandoned. His Capstone served with UA Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law’s Mediation Clinic, dealt with embracing conflict and alternative forms of conflict resolution.

Now a Judge Advocate with the U.S. Coast Guard, stationed in Alameda, California, McKinney provides command advice to operational units on topics including military justice and criminal investigations, missions law, accident investigations, ethics, FOIA, privacy act, and civil rights.

He points to the education he received through the Clinton School of Public Services as an important plank in his career foundation.

“The duality of the Clinton School and Bowen allowed me to gain a mix of best practice problem solving, an understanding of law and policy, and an awareness to be cognizant of unintended impacts,” he said. “To me, that’s really the benefit that I pulled and was really the apex, the culmination of what I learned. I learned so much in both of those schools on how to be a lawyer and how to be a public service practitioner.”

The views and opinions presented herein are those of the subject and author and do not necessarily represent the views of DHS, DoD, or their components.

Cody McKinney, a concurrent graduate of the Clinton School of Public Service and UA Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law, is a Judge Advocate with the United States Coast Guard in Alameda, Calif.



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