A retired Marine colonel wants to bring Smoke the donkey from Iraq to Nebraska to work with the children of soldiers who have been killed or wounded.
Baghdad — It’s probably safe to say that Smoke is the most sought-after donkey in Iraq.
Two years after he wandered onto a US military base west of Baghdad and won the hearts of the men stationed there, he’s landed at the center of a cross-cultural custody battle involving marines now back in the United States, a sheikh, and an Iraqi family that has demanded $30,000 to give him up.
It’s unclear who the skinny young donkey originally belonged to. But for the Marine logistics unit that adopted him in 2008, patching up the cuts on his legs and face and nursing him back to health, he quickly became part of their family.
Fathers bonded with children they hadn’t seen in months by e-mailing photos of Smoke. Children who grew up with the movie ‘Shrek,’ which features a talking donkey, sent Smoke cards, letters, and care packages with donkey treats. The military made an exception to its ban on pets, officially declaring the gregarious donkey a working therapy animal.
“Marines aren’t all tough guys with hard hearts – we’re suckers for kids and animals,” says retired Marine Col. John Folsom, who was commandant of Camp Taquddam in Anbar Province when Smoke showed up.
“He’s a symbol in my mind of humility and peace,” adds Folsom, who now runs Wounded Warriors Family Support and is spearheading an effort to bring Smoke to Nebraska to work with children whose parents have been wounded or killed. “He worked for us in the capacity that he made families happy.”
Asked how he would respond to concerns that such love and attention should be focused on people in war-torn Iraq rather than animals, Folsom says “I’ve never heard that…. Smoke made a lot of children happy. He was a diversion for a lot of us who were deployed a long way from home.”
Adventures of a free-range donkey
Smoke was handed over to another Marine unit when Folsom’s unit left. When the last of the Marines left Iraq last fall they gave Smoke to the Army unit replacing them. When the incoming Army unit said they weren’t going to keep the donkey, a Marine major gave him away.
“The Army wanted nothing to do with him,” says Folsom, referring to what is obviously still a sore point.
“The major told me, ‘I gave it to this sheikh in Fallujah,’ and the sheikh said, ‘I gave it to this family in Ramadi or Fallujah,’ and the family said, ‘Well, he’s a famous donkey, we want $30,000 for him,” says Folsom.
The sheikh has since offered to buy Smoke back for the marines, presumably at a lower price, but logistical hurdles remain – not least of all corralling Smoke, whom Folsom calls a “free-range donkey.”
Smoke’s trip to Nebraska foiled by Kuwait
Once Folsom located Smoke, he worked out a plan with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) to bring Smoke to the States.
The donkey would fly via Kuwait, Amsterdam, and Washington Dulles, where he would be quarantined for two weeks before being sent to his new home in Nebraska – first at Take Flight Farms in Omaha, and then to a Wounded Warriors retreat in the northwestern part of the state.
The ASPCA says if handled properly, the stress on Smoke from traveling should be minimal. Nor should there be any stress on US taxpayers, since the animal will travel via commercial air.
But Kuwait has stopped allowing donkeys to enter the country. “I was hoping to have the donkey back in Dulles by Christmas,” says Folsom, who isn’t giving up. “If not [via] Kuwait, there’s Jordan. Or perhaps Turkey.”
In the midst of war, Smoke won hearts and earned himself a new job and a new home – thanks to a story by a Monitor correspondent.
In January 2009, the US inaugurated a new president committed to ending the Iraq War. And at a mess hall that same month, dozens of Marines laughed uproariously to the mangling of a Kenny Rogers song: “Yes, he’s once, twice, three times a donkey…. I loooooovvvvvveeeeee youuuuuuuuu.”
Boy did they, and not just the Marines. Smoke the stray donkey brought a reminder of beloved pets back home to one of the most foreign places any American could imagine, winning over everyone from top military brass to pro athletes.
In addition to good feelings, Smoke inspired endless wordplay, thanks to a three-letter word for donkey, and sparked a remarkable international logistical operation. Meanwhile, countless viewers and readers tracked his doings thanks in part to a crucial Christian Science Monitor article
This unlikely tale unfolds in the new book Smoke the Donkey: A Marine’s Unlikely Friend. The author is Cate Folsom, wife of Col. John Folsom, who transformed this scruffy donkey from stray to wartime icon to therapy animal.
Here are five fun facts about “Smoke the Donkey,” a “mascot, ambassador, and battle buddy”:
1. It all started with “Heehaw”
In August 2008, Folsom was serving as commandant at Iraq’s Camp al Taqaddum, where Marines had to sleep through the thwap-thwap-thwap of helicopters and the drone of generators. But it was the braying of a donkey – “heehaw, heehaw, heehaw!” – that snapped Folsom out of sleep early one morning.
The noise came from an emaciated, three-feet-tall gray donkey tied to a eucalyptus tree. He was friendly despite his predicament, and he was there because Folsom wanted it so. He’d been looking for a donkey because his commanding general thought it would be funny to catch one, and Folsom figured it would be neat to keep one. They were right on both counts.
2. Donkey discipline: make it snappy
Folsom learned early on that Smoke – so named because he gobbled a lit cigarette – wasn’t some docile house cat or lap dog. As donkeys do, he kicked his hind legs when he wanted to get a message across.
Fortunately, donkeys are smart, and they’re trainable too, sort of. The key, a donkey trainer told him, is to discipline them within eight seconds of when they break a rule. Otherwise, they won’t make the connection.
Folsom firmly used a plastic baseball bat to get the lessons across. But Smoke followed his own counsel about things like food, snarfing bowls of candy and tomato plant leaves in a staff sergeant’s treasured garden.
3. Meet the $30,000 donkey
By 2010, Smoke was a minor celebrity back home in the US, and Folsom – now retired – wanted to bring him to his home state of Nebraska to work with children who’d survived trauma.
But Smoke didn’t belong to the Marines anymore since a major had given him away to a sheik. As the story went, the sheik gave him to a family who now wanted $30,000 to get him back. So much for the plan to fly the donkey to the US via the Netherlands and Kuwait.
This is when The Christian Science Monitor turned Smoke into a star – thanks to a story by Iraq-based correspondent Jane Arraf. The article began this way – “It’s probably safe to say that Smoke is the most sought-after donkey in Iraq” – and inspired news coverage of Smoke’s unfortunate predicament.
4. Donkey transport? Try the Turkish Embassy
Smoke wouldn’t be destined to live out his days in al-Anbar Province, although getting him out was anything but easy or inexpensive.
But Folsom was as stubborn as his charge, and worked connections to find assistance from the nation of Turkey, a Canadian-based organization called Operation Baghdad Pups, and an American animal handler.
The problem? Everything. Red tape, misunderstandings, and more threatened to keep the donkey at bray. Er, bay. For his part, Smoke languished at a farm where his handler sent this report: “Smoke is doing great. He loves to tease the dogs, eat the pet rabbit’s food, and run to the gate to greet anyone that arrives. He is quite the character.”
5. “Donkey Diatribe,” Line Two!
After endless obstacles, Smoke finally made it to the US and immediately began his victory tour. He chowed on bluegrass, hobnobbed with the Virginia horse set, and got squired across Manhattan to appear on local news. Apples and carrots greeted him, and he purloined some Cheerios, cardboard box and all.
More than 900 donors had helped support his voyage across the world, and he’d found a new nation to call home. Now it was time, tracked by news media from around the world, to head to Nebraska and home at a horse therapy program.
But first, he made his way into a ring tone.
Smoke liked to be fed on time. One day when a handler showed up late, he let her have it with a 48-second “donkey diatribe.” She recorded it and enjoyed the startled reactions when someone would call while she was out and about.
Heehaw, heehaw, heehaw. It’s for you!
Smoke the donkey, the former mascot for 1st Marine Logistics Group in Iraq, could be in the U.S. by the end of January.
Marines were forced to abandon their beloved Iraqi-born mascot when they withdrew from Camp Taqaddum, near Fallujah, more than two years ago. But the camp’s former commandant, retired Col. John Folsom, has been on a quest since October to bring the donkey to Nebraska.
With the help of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International’s “Operation Baghdad Pups,” Smoke, as of Jan. 19, was waiting to hop a flight out of Arbil, Iraq.
Smoke became 1st MLG’s mascot after a sergeant caught him roaming the base and tied him up outside Folsom’s tent. Marines, who named him for his grey color and his affinity for cigarettes, were able to skirt regulations barring troops from keeping pets in a warzone after a Navy lieutenant supported designating him a therapy animal.
Tracking Smoke down proved challenging. A local sheik who works with U.S. forces said Smoke was in possession of a family who asked for $30,000 for the animal. Folsom scoffed at the amount, and the sheik eventually agreed to obtain the animal free of charge.
Folsom hopes Smoke can work at Wounded Warrior Family Support as a therapy animal for children. The non-profit organization, founded by Folsom, works to help the families of killed and wounded service members.
It’s a U.S. Marines tradition to never leave a comrade behind. As far as John Folsom was concerned, that rule applied to Smoke, a wild donkey he met while serving in Iraq: Folsom devoted more than three years to arranging Smoke’s transport to Nebraska.