Steamboat Springs As Cmdr. Nicole Shue drove down the west side of Rabbit Ears Pass on Friday, she waited anxiously for the Yampa Valley to open up before her around the final curve.
It’s not quite the Pentagon, where Shue spent five years as a legislative adviser to Gen. David Petraeus. And it’s nothing like an ocean in the Middle East, or the coast of Australia, where Shue worked as an officer on naval warships.
But it’s home, and 50 of her classmates from the Steamboat Springs High School Class of 1991 awaited her for their 20-year high school reunion.
“It’s breathtaking, and I feel like I’m home, even though there’s no ocean,” Shue said about pulling into Steamboat. “This was where I grew up, this was my foundation.”
Upon that foundation, Shue has built a successful 15-year career in the Navy, which began with the simple dream of a Steamboat teenager hoping to train dolphins and work on the water.
Now, she is one of a few new female commanding officers in the Navy. Within two years she will take over command of the USS Higgins, a 505-foot guided missile destroyer with a crew of more than 270 sailors.
“I did my job, I don’t think it’s anything special,” said Shue, who grew up in Yampa and moved to Steamboat for high school. “I’m amazed and honored that I get to represent the U.S.”
Down memory lane
On Saturday afternoon during a high school reunion picnic at Little Toots Park, Shue and her high school best friend Krista Monger reminisced about the days when they used to skip school to ski powder days.
“We think we all look like we’re still 18,” Shue said while looking around the park.
Monger, now a teacher in Hayden, recalled her petite, blond friend as “strong,” even as a young girl.
At barely 5 feet tall, she said Shue was determined to play basketball and volleyball.
“She thought, ‘I don’t care if I sit the bench, I’m going to play basketball,’” Monger said about Shue, who friends nicknamed “Taz.”
“I always thought she’d go with the ocean stuff,” Monger said. “I knew it was going to be a career for her.”
It wasn’t long into her ROTC program at Oregon State University that Shue realized she might not end up one of the few Navy officers who get to train dolphins. And that was fine with her.
As Monger said, “Once she bites her teeth into something, she doesn’t let go.”
Shue graduated college in 1996, just a few years after women were first allowed to serve on warships in the Navy.
It would be years before a woman would captain a destroyer like the USS Higgins.
In her first job, she worked on a steam plant as one of six women in a literal sea of 1,000 men, and there’s wasn’t even a women’s bathroom.
“I had men working under me who didn’t think a woman belonged there,” she said.
But as the first wave in a generation of female warship officers, Shue isn’t alone.
She said there are now five or six women in each year’s class of commanding officers.
In the next few years, she said, there will be about 30 female commanding officers taking over ships on both coasts.
“Initially, they don’t know what to expect of me,” Shue said about serving in the Navy as a female officer. “But once you show you’re interested and you’re competent, the rest falls into place. We’re all working toward a common goal.”
On a mission
At first, Shue wasn’t sure she would be in the Navy for the long haul. She alternated sea duty and shore duty in Newport, R.I., San Diego and Virginia, and thought she would fulfill her commitment and get out.
But that changed after Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks altered her perspective, and she took an offer to go to graduate school to get her master’s degree in global leadership.
“There was nothing I really wanted to do outside the Navy,” she said. “I loved the travel. Colorado is my home, but I always knew there was more. “
Although she’s never seen combat, the ships she’s worked on are outfitted for war, a constant reminder of the dangers of serving in the military.
“On a personal level, you’re always worried about your safety,” she said. “But I go to work every day thinking about what we have to do today to complete our mission.”
And that mission could be anything. The USS Higgins, she said, was the first to respond to the humanitarian disaster in Haiti after a devastating earthquake.
When she arrives on the ship as its executive officer in January (like a vice principal position, Shue said), she has no idea where it will go.
It goes without saying that her parents are proud of her accomplishments.
Donna Shue, who now lives in Craig with her husband, Bill, a former Steamboat high school teacher, said her daughter was determined since junior high to go into the Navy.
“She’s pretty fearless,” Donna said. “She’s not afraid to try things and go after things. She has a lot of confidence in herself and that allows her to go out and try and feel confident that she’s going to reach the right outcome.
“She’s been doing great things, and I expect she’ll do a few more great things before she’s finished.”
At the reunion, her classmates said they were impressed with her recent promotion to commander. Class president Justin Szerlong said he bragged about her like she was his child.
“We always knew she was going to be a leader,” classmate Brannon Winn.
“That’s a nice way of saying bossy,” Shue added with a laugh.
The group plans to hike Fish Creek Falls and get together for dinners and dance parties, maintaining the close-knit community that many class members said set them apart.
Although she’ll soon set sail once again, Shue said she visits Steamboat at least once a year, where her feet can plant on the solid ground where she grew up; where she can swish through Champagne powder and where she can laugh about how her class had absolutely nothing to do with the alleged theft of the police department’s dummy, Officer Gregory, in spring 1991.
“I still always get to come home,” she said.
To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@SteamboatToday.com