The harsh sound broke like an out-of-tune bugle across the Iraqi desert early one August morning in 2008.
“Heehaw, heehaw, heehaw!”
“What the ... ?” Marine Corps Col. John Folsom muttered to himself. Suspended in that state of half awareness that comes in the moments between asleep and awake, he knew he wasn’t dreaming, but was that really a donkey braying outside his quarters?
In his months at Camp al Taqaddum, a vast U.S. base in the middle of Iraq, Folsom had become accustomed to the thudding roar of helicopter rotors and the constant drone of the giant generators used to power camp operations. This was something different.
He hopped out of bed, shoved on his flip-flops, and walked outside. There, tied to a eucalyptus tree with a hemp rope, stood the donkey that would change his life. “Well, well, look what we have here,” Folsom told the donkey.
“Heehaw, heehaw, heehaw!”
Folsom sized up his noisy visitor.
The donkey was a jack, and he must be young, the colonel guessed, judging by his size---no more than three feet tall at the shoulder. He was slate gray and terribly thin, but what struck Folsom as remarkable was the donkey’s pronounced black cross. The horizontal line extended the width of the donkey’s back and into his shoulders. The vertical line stretched from his mane to the base of his tail.
The donkey looked like a living embodiment of the Winnie the Pooh character Eeyore, but without a ribbon tied to his tail. The little creature showed no fear, holding his head down as he peered up with a kind of a “here I am” look.
Folsom grinned. He had been around animals, especially dogs, for as long as he could remember. When he was a boy, strays always seemed to follow him home. As an adult he couldn’t pass an injured bird or rabbit without trying to nurse it back to health. So when he saw those big, expressive black eyes looking at him plaintively, there was only one thing to do. Looks like I’ve got myself a donkey, he thought to himself.
One of thousands of U.S. Reserve and National Guard members deployed to the war zone, Folsom had been in Iraq about a month when the donkey showed up on his doorstep. The First Marine Logistics Group had taken over the operation of Camp al Taqaddum back in February. When the camp commandant was later reassigned, Folsom replaced him.
The sprawling camp provided logistics support for combat operations and several helicopter squadrons, housing up to 12,000 soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines and civilian contractors. Folsom was in charge of the base infrastructure. His Marines looked after generators, repaired air-conditioning units, kept the lights on and the water running, kept the roads in good repair and worked with the many private contractors at the camp.
And now, though he didn’t know it yet, he was at the beginning of a beautiful and highly unlikely friendship, one that would last for years, defy war and distance, and ultimately make the little donkey an international celebrity.
The first order of business was finding some donkey-friendly food. The problem: Camp al Taqaddum is situated on a desert plateau above the Euphrates River Valley. No grass and few plants grow in the dry soil beyond scattered clumps of tamarisk and eucalyptus trees. So Folsom headed for the dining facility. He grabbed some breakfast for himself and collected a handful of apples for the donkey. Then he found an Igloo cooler and filled it with water. Breakfast was served.
Afterward, Folsom walked across the compound to his office and told a few Marines about his new recruit. Word quickly spread, and one person after another stopped by. The donkey was a novelty, and many of these troops, eager for some news to send home, posed for photos.
The little donkey had all the apples he could eat that first day. While apples alone weren’t practical for a daily donkey diet, the chow hall didn’t exactly cater to farm animals. Folsom went to the manager of the dining facility. “I’m looking for food scraps---anything a donkey could eat,” he explained. “Do you have any old bread you’re going to throw out?”
The manager told his staff to round up any stale hamburger and hot dog buns that were headed for the trash. Folsom was happy to get them. It wasn’t traditional donkey fare. But take away the soybean oil, the yeast, the high-fructose corn syrup, the calcium stearoyl lactylate, the calcium sulfate, and the dozen or so other ingredients in a bag of buns, and what’s left? A mouthful of grain. The donkey gobbled it up.
Folsom knew he had to find a better food supply, but he couldn’t exactly tool into Fallujah and ask around for the local feed store. He went to visit a young Iraqi merchant who ran a shop at Camp al Taqaddum. The shop owner told him he knew of a local farmer who grew alfalfa and agreed to bring back a supply the next time he made a run to town. When the first batch arrived, Folsom was thrilled. He filled an old shipping box with fresh hay and stood off to the side, watching the donkey munch on the forage and thinking how the box filled with hay reminded him of a manger. It was a satisfying, reflective moment.
In the evenings, Folsom’s Marines relaxed on a wooden deck outside the headquarters of the Base Operations Section. The deck was covered and furnished with chairs, a few tables, even an outdoor grill. The Marines liked to gather there to drink nonalcoholic beer, cook some burgers, have a smoke and swap stories.
One night, about a week after the donkey arrived, Folsom brought him to the deck and tethered him to the railing, letting him hang out with the guys. One Marine was relaxing by the edge, smoking a cigarette. Between puffs he rested his arm on the railing. Suddenly, the donkey walked up, leaned over and snatched the cigarette from the Marine’s hand. He calmly chewed up the whole thing---paper, filter, burning tobacco and all. The Marines roared. Who ever heard of a donkey eating a cigarette? Especially a lighted one!
The cigarette episode provided the much-needed inspiration for the donkey’s name: Goodbye, “Donkey.” Hello, Smoke.
Smoke was soon a star. Everyone knew where he hung out, and folks stopped by often to pet him, bring him a snack, or take him for a walk. Occasionally, he got loose and went exploring. But not for long. The calls rolled in on the BOS headquarters “trouble line.” “I’m calling to report a Smoke sighting,” the caller would say and give the location. “Come and get him.” Each time, Sergeant Juan Garcia drove over in his roadmaster truck, tied Smoke’s rope to the bumper, and slowly led the donkey back to BOS headquarters.
At other times Smoke didn’t just walk past an office. He dropped in for a visit. The doors on the camp buildings featured levers, not knobs. It didn’t take Smoke long to figure out how to push down on a lever with his muzzle and open the door. He strolled in and passed the time of day until the Marines on duty ratted him out. Some offices kept a community candy dish. Smoke knew just which ones those were.
With Smoke’s growing popularity came something of a dilemma. Among the directives establishing rules for military life is a document titled General Order Number 1.
Issued March 13, 2006, by Gen. John P. Abizaid, commanding officer of U.S. Central Command, this six-page document lays out “Prohibited Activities for U.S. Department of Defense Personnel Present Within the United States Central Command Area of Responsibility.” Much of the order focuses on prohibiting or restricting certain activities that might violate local laws or offend local customs in countries where U.S. forces are stationed. The order covers firearms, sexually explicit materials, gambling and alcohol. And then there is the animal rule.
General Order Number 1b, section 2, part j, prohibits “adopting as pets or mascots, caring for, or feeding any type of domestic or wild animal.” And according to General Order Number 1b, violations are subject to “possible criminal prosecution or adverse administrative action.” So the troops at Camp al Taqaddum had a delicate problem. They were forbidden from keeping pets and mascots. Yet it was widely known that the First Marine Logistics Group had a donkey in the camp.
Several days after Smoke arrived, he received a house call from Lt. Col. Anthony Bostick, commander of the Forty-third Medical Detachment Veterinary Service. Name notwithstanding, the Veterinary Corps’ primary function in Iraq was to inspect food and water supplies and storage methods, to ensure that troops had a healthy food source. A secondary mission was to provide health care to dogs used for bomb-sniffing, security and other tasks.
Bostick knew he had a sensitive situation on his hands. Under General Order Number 1, of course, no mascots were allowed. But job one for the Army Veterinary Corps is keeping the troops healthy. There had been cases of troops taking in stray dogs that turned out to have rabies. And any mammal could contract rabies---even some of the local cattle were carriers. There was no way of knowing up front which animals were healthy and which weren’t.
Bostick knew that concern about rabies was the main reason for the mascot restriction in General Order Number 1. Smoke, he figured, was a great donkey and a big morale booster for the Marines. So he felt obliged to examine, vaccinate and deworm Smoke. Bostick restricted his role to confirming that Smoke was healthy. And that’s how the contraband donkey got his seal of good health. Straight from the top.
The donkey settled into his new home quickly. But Folsom couldn’t keep Smoke on a rope forever. While he didn’t have the authority to order anyone to build an enclosure, he knew he had some great Marines---men who could build anything. One day Folsom was sitting on the BOS headquarters deck, smoking a cigar and drinking a nonalcoholic beer. “Boy, it sure would be nice if Smoke had a corral,” Folsom said, reflecting.
A day or two later he walked outside his office and found five or six Marines at work with an auger, drilling holes in the ground and pounding in fence posts. Before he knew it, there was a professionally made corral, with a latched gate. The Marines had wheeled and dealed with the Construction Battalion---the Seabees---for some scrap lumber, a couple of gate hinges and a latch, and everything else they needed. Now Smoke had a bang-up corral to call home.
As part of his job, Folsom did a lot of walking around to make sure everything in the camp was in order. Now Smoke accompanied him on these daily outings. Soldiers and Marines invariably stopped to say hello, pet Smoke and pose for photographs. His photos and exploits became the stuff of emails, phone calls and letters back home. Smoke had turned into a great conversation piece.
Deployments take a toll on families, although modern technology makes it much easier to keep in touch than in earlier wars. Email was fast, and digital photos could be attached. Families got such a kick out of Smoke that they sent him presents. Donkey lovers sent horse treats and books about donkey care and training. The grandfather of one of the civilian contractors, after hearing about the donkey, donated a red pony halter.
Children became enthralled with Smoke, sending cards and letters directly to him. Many, familiar with Disney’s “Shrek” movies, addressed their cards and letters to “Smoke the Donkey,” or even “Shrek’s Donkey,” in care of Colonel Folsom, at the APO address for the First Marine Logistics Group in Iraq. The post office took it from there.
Folsom came to realize that Smoke also had a serious role to play: He sort of formed his own morale, recreation and welfare unit. In his own small way, Smoke contributed to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Smoke became a must-see during VIP tours of the camp. He helped lead the Freedom Walk on 9/11 and greeted the commandant of the Marine Corps at a Christmas program. It seemed as if everyone knew about Smoke. And he had official “orders,” of sorts. Sometime after Smoke was examined by the top Army veterinarian in the country, he became the subject of a two-page memo written by a Navy surgeon, who attested to his use as a therapy animal. Although perhaps a bit tongue-in-cheek, the memo stood as a testament to Smoke’s very real value to those stationed at Camp al Taqaddum.
One day after Smoke got loose, his escape was reported up the chain, all the way to the Battle Update Assessment. This daily briefing was held for senior commanders of Multi-National Corps-Iraq. And the report on Smoke got a laugh from everyone.
In February 2009, the First Marine Logistics Group ended its deployment and returned to its home base at Camp Pendleton, California. After wrapping up his paperwork, Folsom flew home to Omaha, Nebraska. Smoke stayed behind at Camp al Taqaddum, in the care of the Second Marine Logistics Group. The Second MLG rotated in when the First MLG left. Folsom set aside thoughts of the donkey and focused on readjusting to home, family and civilian life.
Then came August 2010. Folsom was preparing to retire from the Marine Corps after 30 years of active-duty and reserve service. As he went through memorabilia collected over the years and reminisced about people he had known, his thoughts returned to Smoke. Curious about how the donkey was doing, Folsom started asking around. He was startled to learn that when members of the Second MLG were preparing to leave Iraq, they had entrusted Smoke to a local sheik.
Folsom’s sense of mission clicked on. He felt loyal to his old, four-legged battle buddy, and he worried that the donkey would once again end up fending for himself in the desert. Folsom vowed to bring Smoke to America.
To bring Smoke home, Folsom enlisted the aid of seemingly everyone from the U.S. State Department to the Agriculture Department, the Turkish and German governments, the Army and, of course, the Marines---not to mention an animal advocacy group and animal lovers in the United States and beyond. Newspapers, wire services and television and radio stations reported on the effort.
Several months and tens of thousands of dollars later, Smoke finally headed to the United States in a journey that captivated audiences around the world. In May 2011 the donkey arrived in New York. Once in the United States, the once simple farm animal’s life was transformed. He palled around with polo ponies, raised money for less fortunate donkeys, provided mental health support for servicemen and -women and, just by being himself, brought joy and inspiration to many.
After settling into life at stables outside Omaha, Smoke landed a “job” with Take Flight Farms, a nonprofit organization that provides equine therapy to groups from schools, corporations, private and public agencies, and the military. Sessions have taught relationship skills and team building to schoolchildren, helped troubled teens deal with substance abuse and eating disorders, trained corporate teams in leadership skills, and provided therapy for victims of domestic violence and for struggling and wounded veterans and their families.
Smoke was popular with the clients. Iraq War veterans, in particular, liked working with the little donkey. They could identify with him because he had come from the same place where they had served. And both donkey and service members were struggling to adjust and adapt to life in the United States.
Folsom and Smoke took a special trip in November 2011 to visit the Pentagon for the Marine Corps Birthday and to march in the Veterans Day Parade in New York City. A surprising number of parade watchers recognized Smoke as “that donkey from Iraq.” Smoke took it all in stride and afterward strolled back down Fifth Avenue, mingling with shoppers and tourists.
Life settled down again after that. Smoke learned about snow (he didn’t like it) and spring in the Midwest (he loved it).
Then came August 2012. While planning another trip with Smoke, Folsom received the jolting news that the donkey had died, with little warning that he was even sick. Devastated, Folsom was beset by guilt and remorse over the possibility that all his efforts had taken a toll on his little friend. A necropsy, though, provided some reassurance. Smoke, the veterinarians said, had died from acute peritonitis and had signs of suffering from earlier bouts much earlier in his life, likely before the donkey had appeared at the American encampment.
News of Smoke’s passing spread literally around the world. Reuters and the Associated Press published obituaries. News stories about his life were translated into at least 12 languages.
Smoke’s death did not put an end to his legacy. Folsom, feeling a big gap in his life, decided to adopt a young donkey from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. He brought her to Omaha, where she continued Smoke’s therapy work. Her birthday: September 11. Her name: Hope.
Adapted from Smoke the Donkey: A Marine’s Unlikely Friend, published in 2016 by Potomac Books. Cate Folsom, wife of Col. John Folsom, USMC, Retired, is the Editorial Page Editor of the Omaha World-Herald.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #472, January 2017.