Josie Caballero served in the Navy for six years as a nuclear reactor technician. Four of those years were spent aboard the USS Ronald Reagan assisting air support for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since leaving the military, she applied her military and science background to her work as director of the U.S. Transgender Survey and Special Projects at the National Center for Transgender Equality.
In high school, Caballero—a Texas native and “bookworm” who enjoyed computer science and engineering—wanted to serve her country. At 17, she walked into nearly “every recruiting station” asking for the “toughest intellectual job” they had. She chose the Navy’s nuclear engineering program and enlisted in 2004 as a reactor operator qualified electronics technician.
Though she enjoyed the challenge, there was still a part of her that she struggled to hide from others.
“One of the reasons I joined was to get away from home,” she said. “I wanted to prove how tough I was.”
Caballero said that when she was eight, she wished she was female. And that feeling never went away. In the military, she would go to bed every night wishing she would wake up a woman. It was that feeling, she said, which led her to “amplify” her masculinity by excessively working out in the gym and closing herself off to others.
“It was depressing because I felt like I connected more with the female soldiers, but I felt like I was trapped,” she said. “I had to manage that by going to the gym two times a day or putting on an aura of masculinity that wasn’t authentic.”
After training for two years at a nuclear program in South Carolina, Caballero was assigned to the USS Ronald Reagan nuclear aircraft carrier based in San Diego. Along with the rest of the crew, she endured the additional stress of “surge deployments” every year in support of both operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
During these deployments, she explained that ships go to sea more frequently, ramping up from biannually to annually. She said this took a toll on everyone and some marriages dissolved, including her own.
“Because we were out to sea so often and training the flight crew, we were not in port very often,” she said. “It had a detrimental effect on my relationship. I got a divorce during this time, and I wasn’t the only one … we just weren’t ever home.”
Caballero’s military service ended in 2010. Although she was “probably the most fit” she had been in her life, her mental health suffered. She sought help while in college and it changed her life.
“It was a journey of letting down my barriers and becoming more loving, caring, nurturing and trusting,” she said.
Caballero’s transition at 34 was important to her identity as a queer trans Latina woman and to her happiness. Today, she works for both the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the Transgender American Veterans Association (TAVA).
Caballero said it is important that LGBTQ military personnel can now serve openly and authentically.
“If someone has a burning desire to serve their country, they should be able to do it,” she said. “And be celebrated for it and not seen as a burden.”
We honor her service.