On a U.S. military base near Fallujah in war-torn Iraq, Col. John Folsom woke up one morning to the sound of a small, scruffy donkey tied up outside his quarters. He was charmed by this scrawny animal with a plaintive expression. Folsom and his fellow Marines took in the donkey, built him a corral and shelter, and escorted him on daily walks. One night, hanging out with the Marines as they relaxed after work, the donkey snatched someone’s lit cigarette and gobbled it up, to the laughter of all. Suddenly, the donkey had a name: Smoke. More than a conversation topic for troops connecting with families back home, Smoke served as mascot, ambassador, and battle buddy. Smoke the Donkey recounts the strong friendship between Colonel Folsom and this stray donkey and the massive challenges of reuniting Smoke with Folsom in the United States following Folsom’s retirement. After being given to a local sheik, Smoke wandered the desert before Folsom rallied an international team to take him on a convoluted journey to his new home. The team won a protracted bureaucratic battle to move Smoke from Iraq to Turkey, only to face a tougher fight getting him out of Turkey. Once in the States, Smoke became a beloved therapy animal for both children and veterans. Smoke’s story, while tinged with sadness, speaks to the enduring bond between a man and an animal, unbroken by war, distance, or red tape.
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About the Author
Cate Folsom, the wife of Colonel Folsom, is a longtime editor for the Omaha World-Herald. During her career of more than thirty-five years she has managed beats ranging from city hall to Congress. Her award-winning work includes leading coverage of an attempted mayoral recall and the troubled life of the 2007 Westroads Mall mass killer, as well as embedded reports during National Guard deployments to Afghanistan in 2011. Lt. Gen. Robert R. Ruark is the director of logistics, J-4, for the Joint Staff and former director of logistics for U.S. Central Command.
Read an Excerpt
Smoke the Donkey
A Marine's Unlikely Friend
By Cate Folsom
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Cate Folsom
All rights reserved.
The Bray Heard Round the World
The harsh sound broke over the Iraqi desert like an out-of-tune bugle, jarring him awake early one Sunday in August 2008.
"Heehaw, heehaw, heehaw!"
"What the ...?" John 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?
It certainly wasn't one of the typical sounds of Camp al Taqaddum. The colonel's quarters were just north of the camp's runways, along the taxiway. Throughout the day and night Purple FoxCH-46 helicopters flew in and out. There were early mornings — "zero dark thirty," as they were called — when a special operations helicopter would appear, three hundred feet from his quarters. These were UH-60 Blackhawks, which staged on the taxiway, far from the rest of the camp. The crews waited in the middle of the night, engines running and rotors engaged, until they were called in for a raid as part of a task force so secretive that even its designation was classified. The distinctive, thudding roar of the helicopter rotors cut the quiet of the night. Not that it was ever truly quiet: all the power needed for camp operations came from generators, and their growling drone could be heard everywhere.
Still, that braying noise was distinctive, and it roused John from his last dregs of sleep. As commandant of Camp al Taqaddum John would already have been on duty for hours on any other day of the week, attending briefings, inspecting the base, and overseeing the projects his Marines did to ensure that life support systems on the base were in working order. If a generator blew up, or a sewage lagoon overflowed, or part of the camp's electrical system needed to be rewired, John's crew was on the job, and so was he.
But on Sundays he granted his staff — and himself — a half day off, barring emergencies. His crew had been reporting to work by 5 or 6 a.m., seven days a week, and they worked long hours. The load was beginning to wear them down and was damaging morale. He wanted to make sure they had time for themselves, time to relax, time to write letters or emails home to family or to attend religious services. So he instituted a new policy: on Sundays, short of an emergency, only a skeletal crew must report before noon.
So he was still in the rack, long past sunrise. This morning, startled by the brays, he hopped out of bed, shoved on his flip-flops, and walked outside. There, tied to a scrawny eucalyptus tree with a hemp rope, stood the donkey that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would change his life. "Well, well, look what we have here," John told the donkey.
"Heehaw, heehaw, heehaw!"
John sized up his braying visitor. The donkey must be young, he guessed, judging by its size — it stood no more than three feet tall at the shoulder. It was a male donkey, a jack, and had an intelligent look, the colonel thought. Its coloring was slate gray, and it was sleek, probably because of the Iraqi climate and the intense summer heat.
The donkey was terribly thin, unlike the well-fed versions he had seen over the years in the States, with their barrel-like midsections. What struck him as remarkable was the pronounced black cross on the donkey's back. The horizontal line extended the width of his back and into his shoulders. The vertical line stretched from the donkey's mane all the way to the base of his tail.
The donkey looked like a living Eeyore, but without a ribbon tied to his tail. He had a plaintive look — not pathetic but friendly. He showed no fear at being tied up to a tree in a strange place. The donkey held his head down as he peered up at the colonel with kind of a "here I am" look.
Little did the donkey know that the man peering back at him was a sucker for animals. What he saw was a man of medium height with a lean, muscular build and a booming voice. His thinning salt-and-pepper hair was closely trimmed in a regulation Marine cut. His all-business, Marine-issued olive-green T-shirt clashed with his navy-and-garish- yellow SpongeBob pajama bottoms. The pants had been a gift from his two children — all three were avid fans of the naïve underwater doofus.
John grinned as he looked over the donkey. He had been around animals, especially dogs, for as long as he could remember, starting with Snooks, a beagle pup he had been given for Christmas as a toddler. Young Johnny had been the kind of boy whom strays always seemed to follow home. As an adult he couldn't pass an injured bird or rabbit without taking it in and trying to nurse it back to health. He encouraged his children to take in pets and projects — from salamanders and hamsters to goldfish and garter snakes. Nothing too exotic, but enough to finally prompt a household rule: a two-species limit at any given time.
True, John hadn't grown up on a farm or spent much time with horses or other livestock. But he had great confidence in his ability to master any situation. So when he saw those big expressive dark brown eyes looking at him plaintively, there was only one thing to do. He reached out and scratched the donkey's head. Looks like I've got myself a donkey, he thought to himself.
He had no idea of the significance of the moment. He had no way of knowing this was the beginning of a beautiful and highly unlikely friendship, one that would last for years, defy war and distance, overcome bureaucratic hurdles, and ultimately create an international celebrity out of the little donkey with the black cross on his back.
Several weeks earlier, on July 10, 2008, a massive Air Force C-130 cargo plane had rolled onto a runway at Camp al Taqaddum, carrying supplies and troops. The supplies were stowed on pallets in the back half of the plane. In the front section soldiers and Marines were squeezed into four rows of red web seating that ran lengthwise through the plane. They were like military-issue sardines, crammed into a giant, flying aluminum can. One row of troops faced another, sitting side-by-side in their camouflaged uniforms and Kevlar vests, knee-to-knee with the opposite row. No reclining seats here, no flight attendants with beverage carts and peanuts.
John was too senior to be one of those wedged into the web seating. As a courtesy to him as senior officer and a pilot, the aircraft commander had invited him to spend the flight in the "front office," the cockpit. He was on his way to an assignment with the First Marine Logistics Group (MLG). Stateside the First MLG was based in Camp Pendleton, California. In Iraq the First MLG had taken over the operation of the sprawling Camp al Taqaddum back in February. But the camp commandant had been reassigned as chief of staff, and John was called up to replace him, one of thousands of U.S. Reserve and National Guard members deployed to the war zone when active-duty troops became stretched thin.
John was well prepared for the work. It was far from his first deployment, even though all but six of his twenty-eight years in the Marine Corps had been spent as a reserve officer — a "weekend warrior." But between the 9/11 bombings in 2001 and the summer of 2008 John had been separated from his family a total of thirty-eight months to serve the Marine Corps mission.
During an earlier deployment to Iraq, from February 2005 to February 2006, he had initially been assigned as the Second Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) liaison officer to II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward). In October 2005 he was sent to Camp Korean Village, an isolated post at ar Rutbah in western Iraq, near the borders of Jordan and Syria. There he was the air boss, the senior officer with the Second Marine Aircraft Wing. He coordinated the efforts of the light attack helicopter detachment — HMLA-167 — made up of two Marine AH-1W Cobras and a UH-1N Huey gunship, which were used for close air support. He also coordinated the activities of a detachment from a Marine support squadron, MWSS-372, which ran airfield operations, communications, and weather forecasting.
Two Army UH-60 Blackhawks from the 571st Air Ambulance Company were based at Korean Village. They were used for the medical evacuation of casualties in southwestern Iraq. In his four months there John and the Marines in his command center oversaw forty-eight medevac missions. His team was small but capable. After returning home, when friends and acquaintances asked about his experiences, he told them he had had too few assets: people, helicopters, and, most important, time. But he worked hard to make the best possible use of those at his disposal. His Bronze Star citation summed it up: "Colonel Folsom's extraordinary performance under dynamic and challenging conditions directly contributed to the ability of the Wing to successfully execute all of its missions in the Korean Village–Rutbah region and along the Syrian border."
But a lot had changed since 2005. And this time around, instead of running a small, isolated airfield, he would head the unit running Camp al Taqaddum. This massive air base was near Fallujah, a once-embattled city about forty miles west of Baghdad. Al Taqaddum had changed hands a number of times. The British had built it in 1952 as an extension of their nearby Royal Air Force Station Habbaniyah. Al Taqaddum was built on a plateau to handle the long-range and jet aircraft developed after World War II.
The British withdrew in May 1959, after the July 1958 Revolution, leaving the base to the Iraqi Air Force. Then in March 2003 the United States led a military coalition that launched Operation Iraqi Freedom. The U.S. Army took over the air base and renamed it Forward Operating Base Ridgway. That summer U.S. officials were staggered when they discovered Russian MiG-25 fighter jets and Su-25 ground attack jets, buried here and there across the base. A handful of old Il-28 Russian Beagles were parked near a dining facility. The bombers stood as silent monuments to the base's Cold War past.
The name changed again in 2004, when I Marine Expeditionary Force took charge of operations in al-Anbar Province. Forward Operating Base Ridgway, named for Army Maj. Gen. Matthew Ridgway of World War II and Korean War fame, became Camp al Taqaddum as the Marine Corps sought to show respect for local culture.
By 2008, when John returned to Iraq, U.S. forces had turned the corner in al-Anbar. Combat operations were still under way, and casualties were still being transported regularly to the surgical unit at the base. But gone were the continual rocket attacks launched at Camp al Taqaddum that had marked the colonel's 2005 deployment.
John was surprised at how quiet the camp was this time around. The only gunfire he heard was the occasional ceremonial shots into the air to mark weddings and special occasions in the small nearby town of Habbaniyah. The colonel would describe the change several weeks later, in a posting he made on You Served, a military news blog.
The Invisible Success August 25, 2008
When I landed at Camp Al Taqaddum, Iraq on July 10th to assume the duties as an assistant chief of staff for the 1st Marine Logistics Group and camp commandant, I found myself in a much different environment than I remembered from over three years ago.
Throughout much of 2005 Camp Al Taqaddum ("TQ") was frequently targeted with indirect fire as were many of the camps in al-Anbar Province.
"TQ" hasn't had a rocket fired at it in over a year.
Three years ago in the daily operations-intelligence briefings at II Marine Expeditionary Force (Forward), we heard a recap of the previous day's indirect fire attacks, reports of improvised explosive device (IEDs, as you all know) and small arms fire engagements.
The IED incidents briefed in our morning ops-intel briefs are far fewer in number and are more likely directed at Iraqi security forces than U.S. personnel. In the six weeks that I have been here I can recall only one incident of a deliberate attack on one of our outposts.
In October of 2005 I was sent to the edge of al-Anbar, near the Syrian and Jordanian borders, as the Air Boss at Camp Korean Village. Requests for urgent MEDEVACS were frequent. We often heard the detonation of IEDs and sometimes could see the smoke from a burning vehicle that had been hit. We were rocketed once in awhile for good measure....
On the trip from Camp Pendleton to "TQ" I met a young first lieutenant from the 11th Marines, one of our four artillery regiments in our Corps. This was his first deployment and, as you would expect, [he] was quite excited.
He and I talked for a while. I told him that I hoped that he did not ever fire a single round in a fire mission. He looked at me in a way that I would have to describe as a combination of disbelief and disappointment. I explained that if he were to have a fire mission that means something bad has happened to us: we were hit with indirect fire or a unit was in contact....
That isn't to tell you that there's not combat operations in al-Anbar or that young Marines are no longer being wounded or killed. It's that the level of violence is down considerably and is so because of the service and sacrifice of those who were here on previous deployments.
Our Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen are doing legendary work at "TQ" to support Operation "Iraqi Freedom." I am especially proud to support them as their camp commandant.
Colonel John D. Folsom, USMCR
Camp al Taqaddum provided logistics support for combat operations and several helicopter squadrons. Russian cargo planes belonging to private contractors also landed regularly to drop off supplies. The camp was a major air hub, and it was the first stop for thousands of troops who were deployed to Iraq. Marines, soldiers, airmen, sailors, and civilian contractors called Camp al Taqaddum home. Sometimes as many as twelve thousand were based there, creating a good-sized town on the bleak landscape.
John's job was akin to being the town mayor. He was in charge of infrastructure needs on the base. He had carpenters, engineers, electrical crews, and more. They looked after generators, repaired air-conditioning units, kept the lights on and the water running, and worked with the private contractors. It was a big job. One of the largest military bases in Iraq, Camp al Taqaddum covered twenty-four square miles. There were reinforced concrete aircraft hangars, a medical unit, living quarters, offices, recreational facilities, and support buildings.
It was just a month later, on August 24, 2008, when John awoke to the braying of that donkey. The sight of a stray donkey surprised John — but didn't shock him. After all, he was the one who had instructed his staff a few weeks earlier to be on the lookout for just such a critter. It wasn't unusual to find stray or native animals roaming the camp. The staff had encountered striped hyenas, golden jackals, desert foxes, raptors, and other animals. Including donkeys.
Although they aren't native to the country, donkeys have long lived in Iraq. Poor Iraqi farmers rely on them as work animals, but they aren't highly valued, so their owners don't bother to keep them sheltered. Since Iraqi farms aren't fenced, the donkeys roam, eating what they can scavenge. The little donkey that had landed on John's doorstep that Sunday had probably wandered onto the vast camp hunting for food.
John's quest for a donkey had been inspired by his commanding general, Brig. Gen. Robert Ruark. One day not long after John had settled into his new job on the base, he was visiting the headquarters building for the First Marine Logistics Group. The building was dubbed the Dark Tower because it was darker in color than the air wing headquarters next door — the Light Tower. The Dark Tower housed offices for Ruark and his staff.
John walked over from his Base Operations Section for meetings or whenever he needed to talk to the staff there. Three times a week designated staff would gather for "ops-intel" briefings. After one of these 8 a.m. meetings John lingered to talk to the general.
"Hey, I've got something really funny to show you," Ruark told him, and he walked over to his computer.
Excerpted from Smoke the Donkey by Cate Folsom. Copyright © 2016 Cate Folsom. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
List of illustrations
1. The Bray Heard Round the World
2. Hiding a Donkey in Plain Sight
3. Life as a Fobbit
4. Changing of the Guard
5. Reflections and Resolve
6. The Thirty-Thousand-Dollar Donkey
7. Donkey Roundup
8. On the Road Again
9. Donkey Diplomacy
10. Turkish Delight
11. Trouble in Istanbul
12. Now Boarding for Frankfurt
13. Welcome to America
14. Spreading His Wings
15. Of Fans and Fanfare