For U.S. Air Force Maj. Gina Stramaglio, it's all about her love of pets and winning the good will of the people who live near where she is temporarily stationed.
Not that Stramaglio, a Prospect High School grad, can say where she is, other than it's in southwest Europe.
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Helping Gina Stramaglio's missionGina Stramaglio
Ÿ 1992 graduate of Prospect High School.
Ÿ Pilots a KC-135 Stratotanker that can deliver up to 200,000 pounds of fuel to planes in midair.
Ÿ Nine of her 13 deployments have been in the Middle East.
Ÿ Inducted into Prospect's Wall of Fame in 2008.
Ÿ Currently deployed to the Royal Air Force base in Mildenhall, England; temporarily on assignment in southwest Europe from where she and her crew are refueling French fighters operating in Mali.
How to help
What to give: Some supplies can be accepted, but dog food is too heavy to ship overseas efficiently. The best gift is money.
Where to send donations: Donations can be taken at Golf Rose Animal Hospital, 1375 N. Roselle Road, Schaumburg, which is open 24 hours, or mailed to Maj. Gina Stramaglio, 351-EARS-OPS, Unit 9000, APO-AE 09643-9000.
She's flying a tanker that performs aerial refueling of French fighters attacking an al-Qaida-linked movement trying to take control of the North African country of Mali. She was the first person to fly a U.S. refueling mission on Jan. 27, part of a limited logistical support operation in a war that most Americans are unaware of.
On her time off, she's been working to improve the lot of about 90 dogs living in abysmal conditions in an abandoned school local women turned into a shelter several years ago.
Stramaglio, 37, who arrived at the base Jan. 26, learned of the shelter from a sign at the base asking for donations. She was appalled by the conditions she found when she visited.
Because of their small number and limited resources, the local women get to the shelter only three days a week. The dogs often run out of food. There is no medical care and no running water. Most of the building's roof is gone.
"The dogs are really friendly, but they aren't separated at all and occasionally get into fights (over food) and sustain minor injuries. They crave attention when you walk in," Gina said. "They're exposed to very hot sunlight and rain."
One of her favorites, a little white dog blind in one eye, had "part of her ear bitten off. It's pretty bad."
She asked her crew to help and was surprised how eagerly they joined in.
"We're deployed, and we're busy," she said of the overnight missions she is flying. "I can't say enough about the guys I'm flying with."
In short order, her mother, Karen Stramaglio of Elk Grove Village, recruited the Golf Rose Animal Hospital in Schaumburg to help.
The owner has donated medical and pet supplies worth thousands of dollars that Karen is spending about $250 to ship.
"It doesn't surprise us that she wants to go above and beyond," Catherine Howes, the animal hospital's practice manager, said of Gina. "Everybody is really excited to do their part in helping."
Soon, others at the base also were helping, with officers tied to their desks chipping in money for food. On Feb. 10, just two weeks after Gina's arrival, an Air Force public affairs officer went to the school with the growing group of volunteer airmen.
He took pictures that are posted on the website at the squadron's home, the Royal Air Force base in Mildenhall, England. Volunteers are working to clean the shelter, build drainage ditches, and secure the facility to end the thefts of tools and supplies.
The shelter, about 10 minutes from the base, is a refuge for strays, injured, sick and abused pets.
The biggest immediate need is money to buy food, which the shelter was completely out of when Gina visited Feb. 10.
"The local ladies have to carry 5-gallon buckets of water a couple of hundred yards to water the dogs," she said. They know every dog's name and love the dogs, but there just aren't enough of them to deal with the need.
Gina said she is working on a plan to secure the shelter's future but doesn't know how long her mission will last.
There seems to be no awareness of the importance of spaying and neutering to control the pet population, she said. On Feb. 10, airmen operating on a tip went off-site and recovered a German shepherd mix that had given birth to nine pups three days earlier. Eight survived and are doing well.
Karen Stramaglio is working to raise money to neuter the strays at the shelter.
Golf Rose Animal Hospital, which is open 24 hours, is accepting donations, which are forwarded to Gina. She said 100 percent of the money will be spent on the dogs. Donations also can be sent to Maj. Gina Stramaglio, 351-EARS-OPS, Unit 9000, APO-AE 09643-9000.
While the work may seem a strange counterpoint to her military support mission, Stramaglio has also worked with shelters in the States to nurse abused dogs back to health.
She adopted two of them in the process -- Bear, a 7-year-old German shepherd, and Loulou, a 1-year-old mixed breed.
"I love working with them. I love bringing them around," she said. And she hopes her work with the animal shelter will help people who live near the base see another side to the military.
"Especially nowadays, you're interacting with the local population more and more. Yes, we're military," she said, but there's an emphasis on winning over hearts and minds.
"You're not going to change everybody's mind, but I certainly think it helps," she said of foreign perceptions of the military. "There's a lot of good people in the military who want to do the right thing. I'm proud to be part of the team we're on."
Stramaglio decided to enlist after studying World War II and meeting Holocaust survivors while at the Loyola University campus in Rome, according to her mom.
Mildenhall, England, is her 13th deployment. She transferred there last October from Scott Air Force Base in southern Illinois. She didn't want to risk flying her dogs, so Karen brought them over on the Queen Mary 2, the only ocean liner to allow pets, she said. Karen docked in South Hampton Jan. 10, shortly before her daughter's deployment.
Gina said she has gotten flak from some who wonder how a single woman who can be sent on a military mission at any time can care for a pet. But she says the pets are "couch potatoes" who are beloved and spoiled by many on the base.
"They bring a lot of joy to your life," she said, explaining they keep her from getting lonely. "It's been wonderful."
She said she was excited to be chosen to fly the first refueling mission.
"When operations here kicked off, it was a huge honor to be picked."
Stramaglio, who flew the mission three days after the military announced it was lifting the ban on women serving in combat positions, said she supports the policy change for women who can and want to perform such a role, but standards should "never" be compromised.
"They have to earn the right to be there. It's tough," she said.