“When you start a thing, don’t quit until you finish it.” Henry Ford
Sunday, May 8, 2008 – Camp Taqaddum, Fallujah, Iraq: U.S. Marine Colonel John Folsom, the base commander of the Marine 1st Combat Logistics Battalion, was accustomed to waking up to the sound of helicopter rotors. But this Sunday morning, he awakened to a strange sound, “hee-haw, hee-haw,” outside his tent.”
Folsom walked outside to discover a skinny, gray, three-foot donkey tied to a eucalyptus tree. The animal was scruffy and emaciated. Folsom chuckled. He had joked with his sergeant that the next time he saw one of the wild donkeys that roamed the base, to catch it. The colonel never thought someone would take him seriously.
Folsom made his Monday morning rounds escorted by the donkey on a rope. By the end of the day, everyone on base had heard about the colonel’s new pet. He quickly bonded with his new battle buddy. When the donkey snatched a lit cigarette from a marine’s fingers and ate it, they christened him ‘Smoke.’
Within a few weeks, Smoke was a base celebrity. He learned to open office doors and steal apples, carrots and candy off desks. Marines wrote home to their children about Smoke’s adventures, and a staffer created a Facebook page for the camp mascot. Because combat zones prohibited pets, Colonel Folsom persuaded a Navy physician to declare Smoke a therapy animal.
The donkey was good for morale. Smoke proudly marched in the 911 base parade with his red blanket. On one side was the camp logo, and on the other, the base’s new motto, ‘Kick Ass.’
In 2009, the 1st Battalion’s tour of duty ended, and Smoke had to be left behind. The colonel in the new Marine unit assured Folsom they would take good care of his buddy. However, a year later, as Folsom prepared to retire from the Marine Corps, he inquired about the donkey only to discover that Smoke was given to a local Iraqi sheik.
Folsom knew the fate of donkeys in Iraq. No longer used for farming, they were abandoned to run wild or were killed. Then reminded of the Marine Corps practice of “No Marine Left Behind,” Folsom decided to try to bring Smoke to his farm in Omaha, Nebraska.
It took the U.S. State Department’s involvement to eventually locate the sheik. After considerable haggling, he agreed the colonel could have the donkey on two conditions. Folsom would have to find someone to round up the donkey, and he would need to arrange to ship the donkey to the U.S.
Folsom contacted Terri Crisp of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Their Operation Baghdad Pups helped bring dogs and cats adopted by military personnel back to the U.S. The SPCA had never handled a donkey, but Folsom convinced Crisp to give it a shot.
By mid-January 2011, Smoke had been located. Crisp spent weeks getting approval on an itinerary to ship Smoke from Iraq to Turkey, then to Germany and to New York. By April, Smoke was ready to begin his journey when Folsom was informed that Turkey had not allowed entrance to Iraqi animals since 2003.
After three weeks of negotiations with the U.S. Embassy in Turkey, Folsom received approval for the trip. Smoke arrived in Istanbul, Turkey, on April 19. Then his trip was delayed by transit issues in Germany. At this point, a frustrated marine colonel flew to Istanbul, wondering why he ever considered bringing a dumb donkey to Nebraska.
Folsom and Crisp called German officials repeatedly, but their pleas were ignored until Folsom mentioned that the little donkey had his own Facebook page. After checking Facebook, the German government contacted a Frankfurt veterinarian, who cleared Smoke to travel.
Finally, on May 12, 2011, almost a year after the rescue began, Smoke landed in New York City. Colonel Folsom was there to meet him. When the donkey caught sight of Folsom, he greeted him with his customary “hee-haw, hee-haw.” Then the little donkey rubbed up against his ole buddy.
Smoke served in Wounded Warriors Family Support, a non-profit Folsom created in Omaha. His role was to improve the morale of children whose parents were wounded in combat. Smoke served faithfully before dying of cancer in August 2012. Today, John Folsom continues to help families of wounded veterans. On the shelf above his desk is an urn containing the ashes of Smoke, his old Iraqi war buddy.