Those who know Lt. Col. Gina Stramaglio know that she doesn’t just fly for a living – she flies through life, in a tireless pursuit of serving others. From her experience in the military to her experience as a commercial pilot and a tireless volunteer, this South Barrington resident continues to inspire others in many ways.
Some people are just born to fly.
Gina Stramaglio is quite literally that person.
The South Barrington resident is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, in her 21st year of service as a pilot. She spent nearly 15 years on active duty before joining the Reserves, and late this April she finished her 15th combat deployment. She also is a United Airlines captain, piloting the Airbus A320.
But Stramaglio doesn’t just fly literally. She soars through life, figuratively, serving those around her in ways many would find exhausting.
Whether she’s volunteering, mentoring those in her field or working with Schaumburg VFW Post 2202, where she serves as Jr. Vice Commander, Stramaglio is always serving others.
“There are a lot of things that bring me joy: flying, flying people safely, serving my country through the military,” she says. “Helping with animals at the ranch brings me joy. One of the things that makes me happiest is when I can serve others.”
Many have been inspired by her actions.
“She has a big heart, a desire to help, selflessness,” says Matt Carmichael, a fellow Airbus captain at United Airlines. “I always hear about her doing something, keeping busy – and it’s fantastic that she’s making a difference, making her place in this world. Rather than having her life lived for her, or going along with life, she grabs life by the horns and thinks, ‘What can I do today to make someone’s life better?’”
Her comrades-in-arms say she has a military mindset. “If you sit still, you’re going to miss the next big adventure,” says Deb Ryan, an Air Force chaplain candidate and former aircrew who worked several years with Stramaglio at Grissom Air Reserve Base in Indiana.
What sets Stramaglio apart from other aviators is where she focuses her energies.
“I think service is streamlined in Gina’s core,” Ryan says. “Whether she’s flying or not, she doesn’t really sit still. I don’t think it’s because she has ants in her pants; she has a mission, and she’s got work to do, and she’s going to do it.”
“She wants to leave this world a better place, and she’s the type of person/friend who influences you to do better, to be better,” agrees Emilie Kladis, a longtime friend. “She is just such a strong woman, intelligent, a mentor – a beautiful soul inside and out.”
Figuring Out How to Fly
Growing up, Stramaglio never planned on entering the military. The Elk Grove Village native didn’t have any family members who had served and, ironically, her father was terrified of flying.
“My plan all through high school and college was to go into medicine,” says Stramaglio, who attended Loyola University Chicago. “I took the MCAT junior year and got accepted into medical school. In my haste to grow up and become an adult, I finished my college credits a year early.”
With a year to wait until her slot in medical school opened, Stramaglio studied abroad in Rome her senior year, enrolling in several courses: Italian, architectural history of Rome and, most influentially, a World War II class.
“We went to Normandy and Auschwitz – pivotal WWII sites,” she recalls. “You never forget your first time walking through what was a concentration camp; you never forget walking the beach on Normandy. Our professor invited WWII veterans from those locations to talk to our class. We were hearing the living history. To this day, it still gives me the chills. I just felt this calling inside me.”
She began thinking. “What would our lives be like if these people hadn’t fought for us in the war? Where would we be as a country, where would we be as humanity?’” she says. “It’s all because those people stood up and fought. It just seemed like the odds were stacked against them, but they sacrificed themselves. And I said, ‘I want to be a part of that.’”
Stramaglio remembers calling her parents and telling them med school was off the table; she was joining the military. Though they thought she was going through a phase, Stramaglio proved them wrong. She started taking flying lessons at Schaumburg Regional Airport, bartending on nights and weekends to pay for flight school.
Then, she had to find a way into the Air Force. Stramaglio was told by recruiters that, since she had graduated from college on her own, there was just a 1% chance she could nab a pilot spot in officer training school. Most pilot spots went to those attending the Air Force Academy or ROTC programs.
She continued to fly on her own until she had accumulated enough hours to submit her request to become an Air Force pilot, and on June 6, 2001 – the anniversary of D-Day in Normandy – she got the call: she was in.
Then the 9/11 attacks occurred. Just two weeks later, Stramaglio entered officer training school. On June 6, 2003, she graduated pilot training. Her military career was off and running. After 21 years, Stramaglio still loves being in the service.
“The people I’ve met, the places I’ve seen, I would need to live 10 lifetimes to do what I’ve been able to do while in the military,” she says.
Continuing to Soar
Stramaglio’s impetus for joining the Reserves in 2014 came from the news that her mother was fighting cancer. At one point, her mother was given six weeks to live.
Her mother recovered, but Stramaglio realized she still needed a full-time job. So, in 2014, she became a pilot at United Airlines.
“To be honest, the airlines were never part of my plan, either,” she says. “Without knowing anything about the industry, I thought, ‘Airlines – that sounds mundane to me compared to military flying.’ It couldn’t be further from the truth. The types of people I meet, the passengers I fly, and their purpose: weddings, funerals, birthdays … I love helping people get to where they need to go.”
Carmichael says most people don’t understand how stressful and strenuous piloting can be. Continuing education that is required multiple times a year comes not only through exams and assessments, but also in the form of check rides – during which pilots practice strategies for overcoming engine failure, cargo fires, etc. – and the training is ongoing, he says. It takes a special person to handle the lifestyle.
Stramaglio seems to take it in stride, and she’s never touted the fact that she’s one of the few women in the field. United Airlines is a leader in the industry in hiring female pilots, she says, but women still only make up 6-7% of its aviators. Of that small percentage, less than 1% of female pilots are captains.
The military isn’t much different: according to a November 2020 article from Air Force Magazine, of the 10,964 pilots in the USAF, only 6.5% were women.
“I’ve always had the mentality of keep your head down and do the work,” Stramaglio says. “I’m not special because I’m a woman. I didn’t want any attention for being a woman, either. But I did want to be better than everyone else. I think because I work hard and take my profession seriously, I get nothing but respect from all of my coworkers. They’re incredibly supportive of me. It’s not because I’m a woman; it’s because I do my job and I’m a good pilot.”
Stramaglio doesn’t seek attention, but she does enjoy being a mentor, and she recognizes she has the ability to help younger pilots learn from her experience.
“That’s such an honor to me, to be recognized by my peers to mentor someone in my field,” she says. “It’s fun to see young people coming up in this profession. There was nobody for me to look up to. One of my former commanders told me, ‘You’re the trailblazer; you’re the first to leave active duty and get into the airlines.’”
It was inspiring to work under a highly ranked woman, says Ryan. “As you can probably imagine, seeing a woman in a leadership position, it’s actually pretty rare,” Ryan says. “I look up to her because she’s very encouraging, and she never lets on that something is different for a male than female. She just keeps breaking through every glass ceiling that is there, and I have to say, she makes it look elegant.”
She has Got SOUL
Stramaglio feels blessed that she’s found things in life to be passionate about, including medicine and aviation.
But one of the things she’s most passionate about is animals. Between deployments and traveling, she’d get her puppy fix by fostering, dog walking or visiting animal shelters. Then, she fostered Bear, who at the time was just a 4-week old German Shepherd being fostered with his brothers and sisters. She soon adopted him.
Bear and Stramaglio had similar personalities, she says. They both felt it was their job to make people happy, so the pair attended therapy dog training.
“It was the best of many worlds,” Stramaglio says. “I missed medicine. So, we’d go to nursing homes, and we’d go to the hospital.”
Stramaglio even brought Bear to base, sharing comfort with her fellow comrades.
“You would know when Gina was on base because Bear would come bounding down the hallway,” Ryan says. “At least for me, getting to see a nice furry, friendly face in the hallway before or after a flight – they’re always stressful – you see this happy, sweet creature who places his head in your hand, and you think, ‘I can’t not pet you. You bring me joy.’”
Eventually, Stramaglio found SOUL Harbour Ranch Animal Therapy Program, a Barrington nonprofit that offers free animal-assisted therapy.
She became a volunteer, but she also became much more. In September 2020, SOUL Harbour kicked off its SOUL Veterans Animal Therapy Troops program, which invites veterans and their families to connect with therapy animals during a special hour-and-a-half program.
“Gina was instrumental in reaching out to the various VFW posts,” says Jodie Diegel, founder and president of SOUL Harbour. “She’s arranged guest speakers for us; we’ve had many incredible speakers who shared their mission of helping other veterans.
“For those of us in the program, out of the 50 volunteers, she’s our only veteran,” Diegel adds. “So, to have someone who has that personal experience, the understanding and the camaraderie with those who attend our veterans program… she speaks the language, she knows the talk – she lived it, ate it, breathed it.”
One of the most notable things about Stramaglio is her connection with animals, says Ryan, along with her ability to use animals for healing.
“I know that what SOUL Harbour has to offer, especially affecting veterans specifically, it’s close to her heart and it’s close to mine,” Ryan says. “We are now able to embrace what happened during our service. Not everything is always PTSD – there’s trauma in everyone’s life – but what you see and experience away from home, when you’re called to duty … you can find the best counselor in a furry friend when you don’t have to speak about it.”
Lest you think Stramaglio is Super Woman – flying capabilities and all – Emilie Kladis of Palatine says her friend really is human and shares similar interests: home design, shopping, animals, trying new foods and experiences.
“It’s an easy friendship that works, and it’s healthy,” says Kladis. “Gina makes the effort; Gina cares; she’s got such a big heart. If you’re lucky enough to have her in your life as a friend, you’ll have her for a lifetime.”
Best of all, she’s humble and doesn’t share many of her accomplishments, Kladis says.
“If you would just do 25% of what Gina does, think how much happier and more fulfilled you’d feel,” she says.
Who is Lt. Col. Gina Stramaglio?
She was returning to her housing, near the Turkish/Syrian border, when Lt. Col. Gina Stramaglio saw a pile of fur. She hoped it wasn’t another dead animal.
“We were very near where ISIS likes to camp out,” she recalls. “They use animals for target practice. Dogs wandered to our base frequently.”
Once she got closer, Stramaglio realized the pile of fur was a dog – one that had been shot 14 times but was still alive. No organs had been punctured; no bones had been shattered.
“I thought, I cannot leave this dog,” Stramaglio says.
Getting care for the dog was tricky. Picking up stray dogs is grounds for a court-martial, so all Stramaglio could do was inform her unit’s working dog veterinarian, and the vet was only authorized to administer emergency care.
However, the veterinarian proposed using the dog as a test case, so that in the future, if any military service dogs were to get shot, the veterinarian would have practice treating that type of injury.
Command approved the plan, and the dog was safe for 30 days. After that, Ada, as they named her, was to be released.
In the meantime, Stramaglio scoured the internet for ways to get Ada back to the U.S. She stumbled upon Puppy Rescue Mission, a nonprofit whose objective is “to get battle buddies back home,” Stramaglio says.
Puppy Rescue Mission said Stramaglio would need to get Ada to the nearest commercial airport, but with ISIS nearby, it wasn’t possible for Stramaglio to deliver the dog. Plus, she wasn’t technically supposed to assist Ada past those 30 days.
So, Stramaglio tracked down a local woman she had noticed feeding stray dogs and convinced her to drive Ada 7 hours to the airport. Ada was flown to Seattle, where Stramaglio’s friend, Mitchell Richard, picked her up.
“I fully planned on adopting this dog,” Stramaglio says. “Every day, I went to the kennel to spend time with her. Then Mitchell said, ‘I know you’ve done all the work on this, you’ve done all the fundraising, but my wife is a stay-at-home-mom, the dog would be home with her, she’ll have a family … can we keep her?’”
Stramaglio agreed. “That dog is living her best life.”
An anonymous donor helped pay the fees to transport Ada, and the veterinarian and local woman were indispensable. But friends know Gina’s usually the one to get the ball rolling.
“She figures things out. Not everybody’s like that,” says Matt Carmichael, Stramaglio’s coworker at United Airlines. “It’s very easy for someone to just let things go or not follow through. But not Gina.”