Her love for princesses, glitter and everything girly was well-known to her family and friends.
So when Erin Mills announced she was going to join the U.S. Army, her mother was shocked. She could not imagine her little girl, who insisted on wearing dresses everyday as a child and traveled to Chicago for the perfect prom dress, climbing in muddy foxholes.
But Mills was committed. She got a trainer and worked out hard to get in shape for the physical requirements. And she eventually became a master marksman and master seaman, her mother Debi Green said.
She was easy to pick out of any group photo when she was in uniform, because she always stood the straightest, Green said.
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“When she was in uniform, she was so proud of that,” she said.
But Mills still indulged in her girly nature wherever she could, from binge-watching princess movies on her time off to drawing an “S” on her Army-issued white underwear with red and black markers to show she and her fellow soldiers were “Super Girls,” said Felicia Arbuckle, Mills’ friend from basic training.
Mills’ princess obsession is just one of the many traits her friends and family want people to remember about her after she was shot and killed outside her southside apartment last month. Indianapolis Metropolitan Police are investigating the shooting that also wounded Mills’ boyfriend, Robert Cook, 34, on June 11.
Green hopes that telling people about her daughter will not only keep her memory alive but also help lead to justice for her murder.
“I want to make sure people know who she is, and I want to make sure if they see something, they say something,” Green said.
“Erin was a bright shining star. Whoever did this may have extinguished some of that, but her light is shining on. They’ll never take that away from us.”
Mills grew up in the Center Grove area and attended Center Grove schools, where she was a trainer for the high school football team, a manager for the volleyball team, in choir and worked on the yearbook.
After graduation, she wasn’t sure what to do next and tried a few different paths, from college to training to be an esthetician to wanting to get married and raise a family, before she chose the Army.
She served nearly four years and was stationed at Fort Story in Virginia as a watercraft operator. Her assignment was to ferry Marines to their vessels, and she loved her work, her mother said. Mills was neat and attentive to detail, so that aspect of the military appealed to her, Green said.
Mills was also competitive and was always working to do better, Arbuckle said.
“She had to be the top at everything, and if she wasn’t the top, she was bummed,” Arbuckle said.
Arbuckle still remembers meeting Mills at basic training after learning she was also from Indiana. They immediately formed a strong bond, she said. In addition to their self-designed Super Girl underwear, they would don capes and run up and down the halls at basic training, she said.
“We were kind of the life of the party,” she said.
That bond continued even while Arbuckle was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, where she and Mills would talk as often as they could. Mills was unable to go on deployment because of medical issues with her reproductive system, her mother said.
But Mills served as a continuous calming influence for Arbuckle during her 18 months in Iraq and eight months in Afghanistan, she said.
Whether it was a bible verse, a story about her day or just some cheerful saying, Mills was always great to talk to when Arbuckle needed it most, she said.
“She always knew the right thing to say at the right time,” Arbuckle said.
After about four years, Mills was medically discharged from the Army, but she continued to focus on veterans, her friends and family said.
After she moved back to Indiana, she began volunteering at the Richard A. Roudebush VA Medical Center and eventually was hired on at the sleep apnea clinic. Mills was good at her job and loved being there to help her fellow veterans, Green said.
She also served on the Honor Guard for military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, which was a huge honor to her and something she took very seriously, her family said.
But she still hadn’t found her calling. She interned at the prosecutor’s office, considering working as a victims advocate, but that wasn’t it either.
And then she decided to go back to school to become a teacher, Green said.
She finished her bachelor’s degree in an accelerated program and was working on her masters degree. She likely would have gone on to get her doctorate, Green said.
Mills took class very seriously, her brother Chris Mills said.
If it was time for her to study, that was exactly what she was going to do, he said.
Erin made a big impression on her fellow students and the staff at Indianapolis Teaching Fellows, which is the program she was using to obtain her masters, said Sara Marshall, site director.
She was passionate and energetic and wanted to help children. And she truly wanted to improve from the feedback she was receiving in the program so she could become a better teacher, Marshall said.
As a teacher, Mills was in demand. She applied to teach at multiple schools and was offered jobs, but her heart was set on a position at Emmerich Manual High School on the southside, Green said.
The school had a U.S. Army ROTC Jr. program and the demographics of the school appealed to her, Green said.
“She would be leading kids that people thought couldn’t be led down the right path,” she said.
When she was offered a position teaching English literature, she was beyond excited.
“For the first time since she had gotten out of the Army, she felt like her life was in order,” Green said.
Next on her list was starting a family, her friends and family said. Mills had always wanted to be a mother, Green said.
“From the time she was a little girl, that’s all she ever wanted in life,” Green said.
Mills was great with kids, including nieces and nephew, who loved spending time with their Aunt Erin, said Ashley Shelton, Mills’ former sister-in-law.
Even after Shelton and Mills’ brother divorced, they still remained close, with Erin Mills spending as much time as she could with the kids. They played, did crafts and went swimming, Shelton said.
“It was always fun to spend time with Erin; they couldn’t wait to go back,” she said.
Mills wanted a family but also wanted to wait until she was ready for them, Shelton said.
“She had a passion to be a mother herself; it was something she really wanted, but she wanted to make sure was in the right place in her life. She had just started getting to the point where she was about ready,” Shelton said.
Mills’ smile and laugh, especially when she was with her children, is something Shelton will never forget, she said.
Laura Hicks, Mills’ best friend since high school, said Erin had a way of making everyone No. 1.
She knew your birthday, your interests, and she always asked about you whenever she saw you, no matter if that was her best friend or a distant cousin, Hicks said.
“She had room in her heart for everybody to be No. 1,” Hicks said.
“I want to learn that.”
Everyone always felt comfortable around Erin, her father Mike Mills said.
And she put family first. At reunions and gatherings, she talked with everyone, loved playing with the kids and would make sure to catch up with relatives who come from out of town, he said.
“Erin didn’t just love her family, she believed in family,” Mike Mills said.
And now her family is finding out all of the people Erin touched in her life, with cards, Facebook messages and calls. And that helps them not feel so alone.
“In somehow, some way, it seems she touched all these people,” Green said.