CHICAGO — When U.S. Navy veteran Shekiadia Yarbray heard that her shipmate, Jermia Millsap, had been killed, she couldn't believe it.
"He was a big, muscular guy," Yarbray said. "His forearm was bigger than my thigh — I've never seen anything like that. But he was really gentle. He'd never pick a fight. He was quiet and really sweet — a gentle giant."
Millsap, 25, was shot dead on July 6 as he celebrated the Fourth of July weekend with his family in the 1000 block of West Maxwell Street. Neighbors and relatives said Millsap was a bystander in gang violence.
News of his death spread quickly among veterans as they shared articles and condolences on their Facebook pages.
Yarbray, who worked with Millsap on the USS Ronald Reagan from 2007 to 2011, said she knew she had to act.
"One thing they instilled in us [in the Navy] was a sense of camaraderie," Yarbray said. "Instead of just sitting there thinking of how senseless it is, I wanted to make something positive of it as best I could."
Yarbray, an engineering student at Penn State University, teamed up with several of her former shipmates to launch an online fundraiser for Millsap's family.
Millsap and his wife Tara had four children: sons ages 7, 6 and 4, and a 1-year-old daughter named Samiyah who took her first steps just a few hours after her father died.
"It’s hard to think there are some people that are so careless in this world that they’d want to kill somebody — especially an innocent bystander," said Emily Harrison, a U.S. Navy boatswain's mate who worked as Millsap's supervisor. "You don’t have any idea what he does on this planet or how many kids he has to support."
Harrison, who is currently stationed in New Hampshire, said Millsap was dedicated, mellow and stress-free. He talked about his family and liked showing off pictures of his kids.
During deployments — including one to Japan after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster — the tight-knit naval crew got to know each other over beers and barbecue. After working sun-up to sun-down, shipmates would unwind by "chilling back, relaxing, cooking together, listening to music and watching movies," Yarbray said. They even spent several Thanksgivings together.
"It was a family environment," she said.
Harrison said she was going to Millsap's "bear hugs." After Harrison mentioned to Millsap how much she missed her husband during deployments, the two developed a tradition, she said. Millsap would spritz himself with the same cologne Harrison's husband wore.
"Then he would always give me the best bear hug," Harrison said. "He knew I missed [my husband] so much that I needed anything to remind me of him.”
As of Wednesday morning, Millsap's shipmates had raised nearly $1,400 — mostly from fellow veterans. All donations will be given directly to Millsap's wife, as she continues to raise the couple's children on the Near West Side.
Yarbray set a tentative goal of $5,000, but "ideally, I'd like to exceed that amount," she said.