NEWPORT NEWS -- Navy wife Nicole Padre had been a stay-at-home mom for more than 10 years when she decided she wanted a career as a firefighter.
But not just any firefighter.
First, the 35-year-old became a paramedic, then went through a 14-week fire training program that had her hauling water-laden hoses and crawling through small spaces to emerge as a Newport News firefighter-medic. This month, with her husband and three children by her side, Padre graduated from the Tidewater Regional Fire Academy.
Not only is she one of three women in the 28-member class, but she also represents the growing number of female firefighters across the country. About 6,500 women are estimated to be career firefighters - a jump of several hundred in the past year.
"I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it," Padre said. "I'm proud of myself for coming this far."
Joining the fire department is a first career for Padre, a Maryland native who's been married to her high-school sweetheart for 14 years. When her oldest son, Jeremy, was born, she said she decided to be a stay-at-home mom.
Another son, Jacob, and a daughter, Julianna, followed. Padre said she figured once Julianna went to school, she'd think about a career.
Always interested in the medical field - her grandmother was a nurse who let Padre, as a child, inject stuffed animals with water - she decided to become a paramedic. But working as a paramedic in many circles means more than being just a paramedic.
In the Newport News Fire Department, as in many fire departments, paramedics are cross-trained as firefighters. Fire department paramedics spend about 50 percent of their time riding on medics' trucks and answering medical calls; the rest of the time, they fight fires.
Padre applied to the fire department anyway. In the summer of 2002, she began the 18-month course at Riverside Regional Medical Center necessary to become a paramedic. She became certified in December after hours of training that included working in the hospital and riding on a medic's truck.
In January, she began going through the Tidewater Regional Fire Academy to learn firefighting skills. Padre described that as the really tough part. Several times, she came out of the burn building - a training building where recruits practice fighting fires - in tears.
The physical demands were huge on someone who had never considered herself an athletic person. Going in, she said she didn't think of herself as out of shape, but quickly realized how much more fit she needed to be.
"We have to push them," said Battalion Chief Pat Dent, who oversees training for the department. "We push them to points of fatigue they've never been to before. She had her doubts coming in. Now she realizes she can do it."
Padre was determined that the trainers weren't going to break her, said her mom, Laura Green of Kitty Hawk, N.C. Her family sometimes worried when she came home tired and worn out, but they knew she could do it, too.
Her husband offered moral support and took care of getting dinner on the table. That meant a lot of frozen pizzas and TV dinners, he said, joking, but the kids didn't really seem to mind. Perry Padre, a Navy electronics technician assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, also taught his wife how to shine shoes and iron clothes - military style.
Twelve-year-old Jeremy, 10-year-old Jacob and 8-year-old Julianna seem proud of their mom. Julianna draws pictures of fire trucks and ambulances. Jeremy says he wants to sign her up for the reality television show "Fear Factor."
"The kids have always looked at firefighters as important people," Perry Padre said. "Now mom is one of them."
Of about 350 sworn firefighters in the Newport News Fire Department, 38 are women, including Nicole Padre and the two other women who graduated from the academy last week. The first female firefighter joined the department in 1983.