Love and War

How Marines in Iraq be­friended a don­key and lost their hearts.

EQUUS - - Equus - By Cate Fol­som

How Marines in Iraq be­friended a don­key and lost their hearts.

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 ’t dream­ing, but was that re­ally a don­key bray­ing out­side his quar­ters? In his months at a e om 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 n head up “he

Fol­som grinned. He an do he When he was a boy, st 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

Fol­som headed for the din­ing fa­cil­ity, 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.

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 six­page 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 bomb­sniff­ing, 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 ac­tive­duty 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.

Sev­eral months and tens of thou­sands of dol­lars later, Smoke fi­nally headed to the United States.

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.


Smoke eyes an­other four-legged in­hab­i­tant of Camp al Taqad­dum.

Marine ad­mir­ers of­fer Smoke a snack.

Smoke pays a visit to Sgt. Lonnie For­rest. Af­ter Smoke passed his phys­i­cal, he was de­wormed and vac­ci­nated.

Smoke poses with the Base Op­er­a­tions Sec­tion Marines at Camp al Taqad­dum.

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