Smoke The Donkey TM ©
Colonel John D. Folsom, USMCR (retired)
I deployed to Iraq in July 2008 to take an assignment as the camp commandant of Camp al Taqaddum, which was a 24 square mile patch of inhospitable desert situated on a barren plateau above the Euphrates River in the al Anbar province.
To find Camp al Taqaddum on a map, locate Baghdad, then look about 50 miles to the west. Find the one major highway that goes west. If you trace it, you will see Fallujah. Just west of Fallujah you will find a lake named Lake Habbaniyah and on the eastern shore of Lake Habbaniyah is Camp al Taqaddum.
The camp had once been an Iraqi air force base. The base was covered with dirt covered reinforced concrete aircraft hangers and other support buildings. Of course it had a long runway, which the Marines used for their airplanes and helicopters. The Marines made good use of Camp al Taqaddum to base logistics support for combat operations, several helicopter squadrons and other functions. Camp al Taqaddum was a major air hub and thousands who deployed to Iraq saw Camp al Taqaddum first.
While donkeys aren’t native to Iraq, they found a home there. Being a desert animal, they would wander around finding whatever they could to eat. Smoke wandered onto Camp al Taqaddum looking for food and into our lives.
Smoke wasn’t the first donkey to wander onto our camp. A donkey came onto our camp a few months before I arrived. Soldiers and Marines tried to capture it so it could be removed from the camp. Someone recorded the wild scene of a donkey that didn’t want to be caught. The video was speeded up and a rendition of “Boots” Randolph’s “Yakkety Sax”, which you might recognize as Bennie Hill’s theme song.
I watched the video with Brigadier General Robert Ruark, commanding general of the 1st Marine Logistics Group and my boss. We both thought the video was funny and he said something or other about corralling the next donkey that came on our base.
The general, not realizing that his musing about capturing an interloping donkey would be taken as “commander’s intent”, set things in motion.
Sergeant Juan Garcia, our base operation’s road master who got things done and didn’t need much in the way of supervision. I merely told him that the next time that he encountered a donkey to capture it. He didn’t ask why or wonder about it, he just said “Yes, Sir” and that was it.
I forgot about the matter and never asked Sergeant Garcia how the donkey roundup was going and the general didn’t ask me. That was about to change.
One Sunday morning in August I woke to loud “hee haws” just outside my quarters. I wondered what was going on and went outside and saw a young donkey tied to a tree. Sergeant Garcia captured a donkey.
He wasn’t very old or very big. He stood a little more than thirty-six inches at his shoulder. He was thin. He held his head down and he looked up at me with his big, black and very expressive eyes as if to ask for help.
At that moment, although neither of us understood the importance at the time, both our lives were changed.
The first order of business was to get him some food.
August in Iraq is very hot (if you know something about summer temperatures in Death Valley, then you will appreciate what it was like there) and the desert burns. There was no adequate supply of grass. For the time being we fed Smoke granola bars, which he liked.
But, a donkey can’t subsist on granola bars forever; he needed hay.
Just north of our camp was a former British air base called Camp Habbaniyah. It was run by the Iraqi army and commanded by my friend Brigadier General Ali Haider Abdul Hameed. On this camp was an Iraqi store run by a man who told me that he could get fresh hay for us. The food problem for now was solved.
Smoke had some cuts on his legs. He may have cut himself on wire. Camp al Taqaddum, being a military camp in a combat zone, was fenced and razor wire used liberally to discourage those who wanted to attack us. It didn’t work very well on donkeys that were in search of food.
I called the 1st Marine Logistics Group surgeon, Commander Joe Penta, and asked him to look at our donkey. Marines don’t have veterinarians and so we did what we could under the circumstances. He and one of his hospital corpsmen came by to look at Smoke and render whatever care he needed, which wasn’t much fortunately.
Smoke and I went for walks everyday, once in the morning after our operations meeting and again in the evening when it was cooler. I would take the rope off his neck and he would take off and run around in a big circle kicking up his heels and “hee hawing” very loudly as he ran. He would run in a large sweeping circle and gallop right at me. At the last second he would come to an abrupt stop a couple of feet from me and look at me. His ears standing straight up and expressive eyes that seemed to say, “can I go again?” and I would say, “Get going!” and off he would go. He would run around and come back to me. I would give him a treat and take him home.
His home consisted of a few small eucalyptus trees that afforded some shade. He was tied to one of the trees that limited his movement. He needed something better.
My base operations unit had Marines who could build anything. They were engineers and could design and build whatever we needed and they did. They found some lumber that our SeaBees had available and built a nice corral with an a-frame house where Smoke could get out of the wind and winter rain. No doubt that this was the best cared for donkey in Iraq. Maybe the Middle East.
All was good except for one minor detail: Smoke was an illegal donkey. The U.S. army in Iraq had a regulation that prohibited U.S. military personnel and units from having pets or mascots. The rule wasn’t enforced all that rigorously and pretty much ignored as Marines and Soldiers have always had dogs as their buddies in combat zones. But, these were dogs and not a 250-pound donkey.
Smoke added morale value to our lives. He was a character and made us happy. A navy captain, who was a psychiatrist, saw the value in Smoke and wrote a brief point paper that explained Smoke’s value as a “therapy animal.” Smoke now had a real job and no longer a “pet” or unit “mascot.” He was “assigned” to the “Combat Stress” department.
Word travelled throughout Iraq about Smoke.
One day an army veterinarian came from Baghdad to see Smoke and gave him a real checkup and shots too, especially his rabies vaccination.
Smoke was quite the character. People took pictures of him and sent them back to their families. The kids back were fascinated by Smoke and would ask about him. He was quite a conversation starter. In his special way, Smoke helped in keeping children engaged with their dads who were thousands of miles away for months at a time. He even was in the lead with his 1st Marine Logistics Group blanket in our “Freedom walk” that was held on September 11th.
Smoke was popular, not only with us at Camp al Taqaddum, but in the States, too. He received care packages of donkey treats and correspondence from kids who wanted to know more. He even received a blanket from the wife of one of our officers.
It was during our evening walks that the little Rueppell’s Desert foxes made their appearance. These little creatures were small and very curious. They would come out of their hiding places and follow Smoke. They would scamper along the tops of the walls and barricades to watch. At night they would hang out in Smoke’s corral and would lie down near him.
On our walks we would sometimes to go part of the camp that had dirt-covered aircraft hangars. They looked like small hills and Smoke would gallop to the top so he could survey his territory. We played “hide and seek.” When Smoke went to one side of the bunker, I would hide by going behind one of the small buildings. When he got to the top of the bunker he would look for me and when he didn’t see me, he would start braying until I came out, then he would gallop down the hill to me.
The steady supply of hay lasted until winter, and then there wasn’t any to be had. I thought that he might like bagels. After all, they are made from grain. I arranged to pick up all the bagels at the dining facility that were headed for the dump and brought them for Smoke. Sometimes we had more than he needed so we put them in a freezer. We discovered a treat that Smoke really liked: frozen bagels.
Although Smoke had a nice corral and house, he liked to wander. Once in while he would work the latch on the gate and let himself out. He would then wander around the camp and get into offices. It was pretty funny. The Marines and Soldiers he visited would give him treats. They would call our office to report “Smoke sightings.” Sergeant Garcia would take his truck and drive to Smoke, hook him up to the bumper and drive slowly back to our headquarters.
Smoke became so well known throughout Iraq that when we had official visitors to Camp al Taqaddum, they wanted to meet our famous donkey. Celebrities from USO show wanted to meet him. A film crew from the Golf Channel not only met him, but shot video of him. And he met the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway at a Christmas event.
It was appropriate for Smoke to attend our Christmas event as it was a little donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Smoke came to the Christmas event wearing his plush reindeer antlers.
My time in Iraq was limited and I was due to redeploy in February, 2009. I thought that we could take Smoke to the States where he could live at Camp Pendleton stables or the Marine’s Mountain Warfare School in Bridgeport, California. The commanding officer of the school expressed interest in having him as the school was training Marines to use pack animals. The trick was to get him on a Marine KC-130 and that proved to be too difficult. Although I made a pitch to Headquarters, Marine Corps, Smoke was of no interest to them.
I was determined to get Smoke to the States. That meant that he needed another check up. Another army veterinarian made a “corral call” and took a blood sample that was sent to Iowa State University for analysis. We got the results a few weeks later and he was good to go.
At that time I became acquainted with Terri Crisp of Operation Baghdad Pups. Baghdad Pups helps soldiers who have adopted dogs in Iraq get them home. There was a prohibition against Soldiers having pets, so Terri walked a fine line. She worked quietly and even though the army knew what was going on, they let Terri do her work. I think that many army officers weren’t wild about the regulation. Most have pets back home and are animal lovers. Terri never flaunted what she was doing. It was a delicate balance and they respected each other.
Terri told me that if I could get Smoke to Basra, an Iraqi city near Kuwait, that her group could get Smoke to a donkey rescue organization in Kuwait. That seemed like a good plan and we were going to do that.
Our replacements were the 2nd Marine Logistics Group from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina who deployed to Iraq in February, 2009. The commanding general was Brigadier General Juan Ayala, who after he met Smoke, wanted to keep him. Marines by nature are animal lovers and Brigadier General Ayala was no exception.
As I was preparing to return to the States, I turned the care and feeding of Smoke to the Camp Lejeune Marines. They took to him and he them. This would work and so it did until they had to leave in early 2009.
I knew that the 2nd MLG Marines would take care of Smoke, but I didn’t know what had become of him after they returned to Camp Lejeune. I had always thought that their replacements would look after him. In September of 2010 I called to ask about Smoke and learned from Brigadier General Ayala that they left Smoke behind, but in the care of Sheikh Sadoun al Efan who lives near Fallujah. I was given his email address and I sent him an email to about Smoke. I had not heard back from the sheikh. Perhaps his English wasn’t that good. I don’t speak Arabic and needed help.
First, I contacted the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and asked for help from the Provisional Reconstruction Team responsible for work around and in Fallujah. I wanted them to talk to the sheikh on my behalf.
They weren’t sure where to find him they told me, but my guess is that they didn’t want to be bothered.
Lisa Roskens is a great friend and extraordinarily generous. She has a non-profit organization called “Take Flight” and they use horses in their family therapy programs. I asked Lisa what she thought of the idea of using Smoke at “Take Flight” as kids like donkeys. She agreed that it had merit. I told he of my difficulty in trying to contact the sheikh who supposedly had Smoke. Lisa forwarded one of my emails to Joe Yoswa.
Joe Yoswa is friend of Lisa’s and at the time was in Afghanistan as the public affairs officer working with Fluor Government Group, Afghanistan. Joe knew Colonel Barry Johnson, USA and Lieutenant Eric Bloom, USA, both who were in Baghdad assigned to United States Forces, Iraq. Joe sent an email to Colonel Johnson and Lieutenant Colonel Bloom and asked if they could assist. Lieutenant Colonel Bloom to Joe that he would contact his al Anbar public affairs officer and ask him if he could contact the sheikh.
The al Anbar Public Affairs Officer certainly got the “Message To Garcia”, because the next day I received an email from a young army second lieutenant assigned to Camp al Taqaddum. The sheikh came looking for me:
From: Ryan Mannina
Date: Sat, 9 Oct 2010 12:03:50 +0300
To: John Folsom
Subject: Sheik Saadon Al-Aifan Al-Isawi
Sir, I am 2LT Ryan Mannina, PL, 2/A/3-7 IN. We are currently posted here at Camp Taqqadum, near Habbaniyah, Iraq. Today we had a Sheik by the name of Saadon Al-Aifan Al-Isawi come by, asking us if we could get in contact with you. He wouldn't say what it was he needed to speak to you about; he mentioned it was some kind of a personal issue and that you would know what it was about. He left his business card with contact information, which follows.
Sheik Saadon Al-Aifan
Now we really had something to go one. We had the sheikh’s phone numbers and we verified that we had a valid email address. This was great and we knew that we had a chance to find Smoke.
Joe was again very helpful for our cause because he related our story to Jane Arraf of the Christian Science Monitor’s Baghdad bureau.
Jane and I traded emails and phone calls over the next few days.
We now had a point of contact in Iraq. Jane wrote an article about Smoke for the Christian Science Monitor that was read by millions. She had an Iraqi associate, Jamal, who could help as he was an Iraqi who could travel freely throughout the country.
Although Jane and, especially, Jamal would prove to be invaluable, I needed help in Omaha. With the help of an Omaha World Herald reporter, I met Mr. Imad Rashan, who immigrated to the United States from Iraq. I asked for his help and he was agreeable. Imad would play a very important part of this story.
Imad sent an email to the sheikh and the sheikh responded. What we learned from the sheikh was he did, in fact, get Smoke from the Marines, but he didn’t have him as he gave him a local farmer.
Imad called the sheikh. The sheikh told us that Smoke was the most famous donkey in Iraq and that people from all over came to see this amazing donkey. He told us that a local family was making a good living by charging people to meet Smoke. But, he said, that the family would part with Smoke for $30,000.
Not for one minute did Imad or I believe that the sheikh had given Smoke to an Iraqi family. I thanked the sheikh for taking such good care of Smoke and wished him well.
Jamal, armed with a high-resolution photo of Smoke that I had provided travelled to Fallujah to find Smoke. What he found was far different than what the sheikh had told us. No one was caring for Smoke. Once more he was fending for himself. He was not kept by a farmer and like before, he was finding what little vegetation there was to be had to eat.
We called the sheikh and I told him what we learned. I convinced him that if he let us have Smoke then his generosity would be to his credit with the U.S military. He agreed to let Jamal come into his village to look for Smoke.
Jamal knew where Smoke was and set out to get him. Although he did find Smoke, corralling him was another matter. After several capture attempts Jamal asked if it would be all right to use a tranquilizer gun. I vetoed that as a truly idiotic idea. I talked with Jamal through Imad and told them that they should not chase Smoke. I told them to coax and entice him with treats. In the end that worked for Jamal was able to capture him.
Jamal called with the news and asked what Smoke was worth to us now that he had him. We negotiated a reward. It was generous, especially given the amount of time Jamal spent looking for him. I wired funds to Terri to cover transportation costs and to pay Jamal once he had delivered Smoke to Terri. Jamal hired a truck to drive him to Erbil, Iraq where Terri Crisp has her Operation Baghdad Pups headquarters. Once Smoke arrived he was put in a corral where he had plenty of good grass to eat.
The hard part was over, or at least it seemed that way. Now to get Smoke from Iraq to the United States. There aren’t too many options.
No way was I going to run the risk of making a run for Basra with the idea of going through Kuwait. There was also doubt whether the Kuwaiti government would allow Smoke to enter. That was out.
Terri suggested going through Syria and flying from Damascus. I told her that I would not do that as Syria backs terrorist organizations. Besides, given the recent unrest in Syria that would not have been a good option. Iran was definitely out. That left Turkey.
Going through Turkey looked like our only option. From Istanbul Smoke could take a short flight to Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfort. From any of those cities he would be put into a stall for his transatlantic flight to New York City. That was the way to go. All that we needed to comply with the United States Department of Agriculture equine regulations in order for Smoke to enter the United States.
The plan was finally coming together: Smoke would be trucked to Istanbul and remain there until he was put aboard an airplane and flown to Paris. From Paris he would be flown to New York City and remain in a three day quarantine. After his quarantine, we would be trailered to Omaha and his new home at Take Flight Farms.
Finally on April 5, 2011, Terri set out from Erbil with Smoke bound for Istanbul. She reached the border and it was there that she came up against the bureaucracy of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Terri called me from Turkey. It was 1:30 am CDT on April 8th. There was a problem: the Turks were not going to allow Smoke across the border. The “why” wasn’t really understood. After talking with Terri a few minutes, I sent emails to every email address that I could find on the U.S. embassy website.
A few hours later I called the USDA office at the embassy and talked with Samet Serttas. He assured me that he could help. I did learn that the Turks were concerned about a parasite called a “screwworm” and because Smoke came from Iraq where screwworms exist, he could not enter Turkey unless we had a letter from the USDA.
I called Dr. Ellen Buck, DVM of the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service. She faxed a letter to the U.S. embassy in Ankara that stated Smoke would be allowed to enter the United States. We thought that would do it, but that wasn’t the case. The Deputy Director of the Ministry of Agriculture still refused to allow Smoke to enter Turkey.
Terri and I discussed our options. Terri decided to travel to Istanbul where she would enlist the aid of other animal welfare organizations. SPCAI went to general quarters and sent out a press release and asked their supporters to sign a petition that asked the Director of the Ministry of Agriculture to allow Smoke to transit Turkey.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Lloyd Freeman, USMC, the Marine attaché at our embassy in Turkey, became an unlikely and very important ally in dealing with Smoke and the government of Turkey. Lieutenant Colonel Freeman worked behind the scenes to make things happen. It may be one of the most unusual missions that he has taken on in his career. He wrote to me that “I’ve accomplished a few things in my life but something like this…well, you just can’t put a value on experiences like this….”
Our U.S. embassy staff in Turkey was fully engaged in helping to get Smoke into Turkey and then to the States. It was a full court effort and whatever happened behind the scenes worked.
The first email that I read on April 15th was from Samet, our Turkish friend in the USDA section of the embassy. Samet’s message was that the Ministry of Agriculture would allow Smoke into Turkey. All that needed to be done was to arrange for a truck and driver to take Smoke to Istanbul. Terri would wait for Smoke in Istanbul and make sure that all goes well for the next leg of his journey.
To be continued…