The air strip lies in central Iraq 50 miles west of Baghdad, on the Habbaniya plateau. Originally built by the RAF in 1952, the base was home to several Iraqi Air force units following the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy and ascension of the Arab socialist ‘Baath” party, in 1958. The place was bombed during the Iran-Iraq war and destroyed by American Air forces, in 1991. Reoccupied by the US Army following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the abandoned base was briefly known as Forward Operating Base (FOB) Ridgeway.
In 2004 the name was changed to Taqaddum, Arabic for ‘progress”, to keep a more Iraqi face on the mission. In 2008, camp Taqaddum or “TQ” was home to several United States Marine Corps fixed- and rotary wing squadrons, plus ground support and combat operating units.
Marine Colonel John Folsom was stationed at TQ in 2008, along with the rest of Marine 1st Combat Logistics Battalion, stationed at the base near Fallujah. That was the year the small animal first appeared, wandering the countryside. Starved, emaciated and alone it was a donkey, arrived in hopes of a morsel.Marines took him in, this malnourished Iraqi donkey, and built him a stable, and corral. The donkey would stroll into offices where he learned to open desk drawers in search of a goody. An apple, a carrot or some other sweet treat, planted there by some Marine. He loved to steal cigarettes whether lit or unlit and so it was, they called him “Smoke”.Smoke had his very own blanket, bright red and emblazoned with unit insignia, for the camp’s September 11 parade. On the side were these words, “Kick Ass”.Regulations prohibited keeping the animal on base but Colonel Folsom found a Navy psychologist, willing to designate Smoke a therapy animal. He was good for morale.
Dads would write letters home to their kids, telling stories about Smoke the donkey.
Folsom and his Marines left TQ in 2009. The army unit moving into the base, didn’t want a donkey. Marines found an Iraqi sheikh who said he’d look after the animal, and they said their reluctant goodbyes.After half a life serving the United States Marine Corps, John Folsom returned home to Omaha. He’d often think of his “battle buddy” and those long walks, around the base.
In 2010, Folsom learned that Smoke was out on his own again, wandering half starved and alone. Thus began “Operation Donkey Drop”, Folsom’s 18-month odyssey first to raise the funds and then to wrangle the red tape thrown in his way through multiple jurisdictions, on Smoke’s journey to his new home in Nebraska.
Turkey alone posed a titanic, 37-day ordeal to untie the bureaucratic Gordian knot, with help from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International. Folsom himself grew a beard to help conceal his western identity and flew to Turkey to enlist the aid of the US Departments of State and Agriculture and the United States Marine Corps, with further aid from the German government.Terri Crisp heads SPCAI’s “Baghdad pups”, reuniting US troops with dogs and cats they had once bonded with, while serving overseas. This was her first donkey.
Reuters news service reports, ““He was a great traveler,” Crisp said, noting Smoke posed for hundreds of photos during a six-hour wait in the Istanbul airport parking lot. “Everywhere we went, he’d draw a crowd.””
Smoke was formally released by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on May 18, 2011, arriving at JFK International Airport in New York for the long drive to his new home in Nebraska.
For Colonel John Folsom, USMC (retired), “semper fidelis” (“always faithful”) had become “semper fi(nally).”
Smoke lived out the rest of his days at the Take Flight Farms in Omaha, helping therapists help children come to terms with deployed or war-wounded parents.
Smoke died of natural causes on August 14, 2012 and was cremated, along with that red blanket with the words, “Kick Ass”.
The daily Star Newspaper of Lincoln Nebraska interviewed Sharon Robino-West, a Marine veteran who once worked with the donkey and “still has to bite her lip when she talks about laying a shiny Marine challenge coin on Smoke’s red blanket”.
Today, the ashes of John Folsom’s old battle buddy are on his desk, in his own special urn. As of October 2014 a little donkey filly peered out of the stall, where Smoke’s face could once be seen.
“She doesn’t have the story that Smoke did,” Folsom said, “but I needed to fill the void.”