May 18, 2011 No Ordinary Donkey

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”.

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.

Taqaddum
U.S. Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts, Ted Stevens of Alaska, and John Warner of Virginia visit Al Taqaddum, in 2005

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.marinedonkeyx-large1Marines 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”.XC2LPNK7EFFE7AOKIME32BJAPISmoke 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”.b0d27c9b662c9ca0a135af12049865ce--pet-services-marinesRegulations 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.smoke-the-donkey-matt20shelatoAfter 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.  Home-Page-LowerSliderThus 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.donkeykissTerri 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.

5818e46f9a03a.imageFor 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.”

 

March 18, 2011 No Ordinary Donkey

For the family who now owned him, the  neglected, half-starved pack animal out back suddenly became a “beloved pet”.  They couldn’t possible let him go for anything less than $30,000.  (But, of course).

Al Taqaddum Airbase, “TQ” in military parlance, is a military airbase, 45 miles west of Baghdad, on the Habbaniyah Plateau of Iraq. In 2008, Al Taqaddum was home to the 1st Marine Logistics Group, under the command of Colonel John D. Folsom.

wwfs-colonel-folsom-smallEarly one August morning, Colonel Folsom awoke to a new sound. The thwap-thwap-thwap of the helicopters, the endless hum of the generators, those were the sounds of everyday life. This sound was different – the sound of braying donkey.

Folsom emerged from his quarters to find the small, emaciated animal, tied to a eucalyptus tree.  Standing all of 3′ tall, a sergeant had spotted the donkey roaming outside Camp Taqaddum, and thought it would be amusing to catch him.  Folsom thought it might be fun to have one around. Time would tell they were both right.

Smoke visits Sgt Lonnie Forrest
Smoke visits Sgt Lonnie Forrest

The website for a UK donkey sanctuary recommends a diet of highly fibrous plant material, eaten in small quantities throughout the day. I read the list twice and nowhere will you find bagels yet, for this little Iraqi donkey, there was nothing better.  Preferably frozen.  He’d hold them in his mouth and walk along, scraping the bagel in the dirt before eating it.  He liked to play the same game, with a deflated rubber ball.

You won’t find cigarettes on the list either, but he stole one once, and gobbled it down.  It didn’t seem to matter that the thing was lit.  For that reason and because of the color of his coat, the Marines called him “Smoke”.

Smoke-the-donkey-MattShelatoBefore long,  Smoke was a familiar sight around Camp Taqaddum.  After long walks around the wire, Smoke learned to open doors and wander around.  If you ever left that candy dish out on your desk, you were on your own.

SmokeRegulations prohibit the keeping of pets in a war zone.  A Navy Captain helped get Smoke designated as a therapy animal, and he was home to stay.  As it turned out, there was more than a little truth to the label.  For young women and men thousands of miles from home in a war zone, the little animal was a welcome reminder of home.

The humor of the situation was hard to resist, and the “ass jokes” all but told themselves.  (Sorry, but we’re talking about Marines, here).  Dozens of Marines laughed uproariously in that mess hall in 2009, belting out a mangled version of an old Kenny Rogers song: “Yes, he’s once, twice, three times a donkey…. I loooooovvvvvveeeeee youuuuuuuuu.”

That was the year when Folsom’s unit cycled out of Camp Taqaddum, to be replaced by another contingent of Marines.  These promised to look after the 1st MLG’s mascot, but things didn’t work out that way.  A Major gave the donkey away to a Sheikh who in turn dumped him off on an Iraqi family, and that was the end.  Except, it wasn’t.

Smoke-Home-LowerColonel Folsom couldn’t get the little animal out of his head and, learning of his plight in 2010, determined to get him back.  There were plenty of kids who had survived trauma of all kinds in his home state of Nebraska.  Folsom believed that the animal could do them some good, as well.

There ensued a months-long wrangle with American and Iraqi authorities, who couldn’t understand why all the fuss over a donkey.  For the family who now owned him, the  neglected, half-starved pack animal out back suddenly became a “beloved pet”.  They couldn’t possible let him go for anything less than $30,000.  (But, of course).

900 donors pitched in and, despite seemingly endless obstacles and miles of red tape, Smoke the Donkey slowly made his way from al-Anbar to Kuwait and on to Turkey and finally, to his new home in Nebraska.

smoke-donkey-omaha.600pjpg
Smoke the Marine Corps Donkey, at his new home in Omaha

ABCNews.com broadcast this announcement on May 18, 2011. Smoke the Marine Corps Donkey, “mascot, ambassador, and battle buddy”, was now, an American.  Semper Fi.