VFW Magazine — October 2017
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Bringing Smoke The Donkey To America
Kari Williams


VFW life member John Folsom served in the Marine Corps Reserves for three decades and worked with a number of “characters” throughout his service. But in the months following his retirement, the fate of one — a loyal and playful donkey — “nagged” at him.

One Sunday morning while serving as camp commandant in Iraq, then-Col. Folsom awoke to the sound of “hee-hawing” outside his living quarters with the 1st Marine Logistics Group at Camp al Taqaddum, roughly 2 miles east of Fallujah.

That moment — spurred by a joke about catching a donkey — became a pivotal one. It planted the seeds for a worldwide journey that ended with multiple governments and organizations securing Smoke the donkey’s passage to the United States.

Folsom, who trained initially as a CH-46 Echo helicopter pilot, said General Order No. 1B prohibits soldiers from keeping mascots or pets. However, Capt. Michael Hoffer, a U.S. Navy medical doctor, classified Smoke as a therapy animal. Smoke not only boosted morale, but helped Marines connect with their children.

“He did some crazy things, like stealing candy or wandering around and following people,” Folsom said, “and those things could be talked about with the kids back home.”

Smoke received cards, letters and gifts, becoming something of a celebrity.

“Everyone in the mail facility knew who Smoke the donkey was, and I ended up getting his mail,” said Folsom, Who served in Iraq from July 2008 to February 2009 and is a VFW member with the Department of Nebraska.


Before Folsom left Iraq, he said he was “assured” that the relieving Marine Corps unit, the 2nd Marine Logistics Group, would take care of Smoke. But he had contacted the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) International while exploring options. The subsequent Army unit, however, “had no desire” to take care of Smoke, according to Folsom.

It was then, in September 2010, that Folsom said he discovered Smoke had been given to a sheik and was “turned loose,” left to fend for himself in a “barren part of Iraq.” It was time to see if he could bring Smoke home.

A string of correspondence, initiated by Lisa Roskens, of Take Flight Farms in Omaha, Neb., led to Folsom obtaining contact information for the sheik.

Once connecting with the sheik, Folsom discovered that he had given Smoke to a farming family.

In Smoke the Donkey: A Marine’s Unlikely Friend, Cate Folsom, Folsom’s wife, wrote:

“After that, [the sheik] claimed, word had spread about this special donkey who would eat cigarettes and do tricks.

“Children loved him, the sheik said, and people had flocked to see him. So, obviously, the family was reluctant… to give up the donkey without compensation. Specifically: they wanted $30,000.”

Through negotiations, the sheik eventually agreed to return Smoke to Folsom at no cost.

By January 2011, Folsom reconnected with SPCA International. Stephanie Scott, director of marketing and communications for SPCA International, said it was “certainly” a surprise when Folsom contacted the organization for assistance in bringing Smoke to the U.S.

“[It became] clear to all of us, this was no ordinary donkey and that he had really made an impact on this group of Marines,” Scott said.

Scott said SPCA International has helped reunite more than 700 dogs and cats with their wartime counterparts — but no rescue had “been anywhere as close to as complicated” as Smoke’s. Donkeys, for example, don’t have “airline- approved crates,” she said.

“When we worked on Smoke’s rescue, every lesson that we had learned was basically out the window because we could not follow any of our normal routes in transportation options,” Scott said.

The whole process took until May 12, 2011, Folsom said, and involved multiple organizations and countries.


A key challenge SPCA International faced in helping Smoke was the lack of value placed on animals in the Middle East, according to Scott.

“[Donkeys] are overworked and under cared for,” Scott said. “So, as we were traveling with Smoke around Iraq, we were met with confusion and shock.”

Once Smoke was “found and captured,” Folsom said, the therapy animal was taken to Erbil, in northern Iraq, to connect with SPCA International representatives. It was decided, according to Folsom, that “the easiest way to get him to [the U.S.] was to get him to Istanbul.”

“Getting him across the border was an arduous task,” Folsom said. “There were prohibitions against bringing equine from Iraq into Turkey.”

Cate, also the metro-regional editor at the Omaha World-Herald, said that when the Iraq War started, “country-to-country communications and regulations just kind of broke down.”

“Iraq was not in a position to monitor the health of its livestock,” Cate added.

That resulted in other countries blocking animals from crossing Iraq’s border to prevent potential infections in healthy livestock, according to Cate.

Scott said government officials in Iraq and Turkey had a “really hard time” understanding why this was important.

“We had to get the first exception to that rule,” Scott said. “That was a huge hurdle.”

After being stopped at the Iraq-Turkey border, then-Lt. Col. Lloyd Freeman, who served as the Marine Corps Liaison at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, was contacted, Folsom said. Doug Silliman, deputy chief of mission at the embassy, and a U.S. Department of Agriculture representative also were involved in conversations that ultimately persuaded Turkish officials “that everything was fine,” Folsom said.

On April 21, 2011, Scott said, SPCA International “received word that Smoke would be allowed to cross the Iraq border into Turkey.”

The next hiccup in Smoke’s journey occurred trying to transfer the donkey from Istanbul to Germany. Travel requirements and “a seemingly unending bureaucratic tangle” put Smoke’s journey on hold yet again, according to Cate’s book. It wasn’t until Folsom, who traveled to Istanbul in May 2011, told an animal importer/exporter in Frankfurt, Germany, that Smoke had a Facebook page that there was any traction on that end.

Cate said the “most amazing thing” about Smoke’s journey was the number of obstacles he overcame and the number of people and entities who became involved.

“Like the women in Germany,” Cate said. “They were no-way going to let this animal through because they didn’t have any confidence in his health. Then they found out that Smoke had a Facebook page… [and they] worked harder at seeing what they could do.”

After a quarantine period in Germany, Smoke was then allowed to proceed to the United States.


Smoke arrived in the U.S. May 12, 2011, at which point SPCA International’s official involvement ended.

Take Flight Farms in Omaha housed the celebrity donkey. Roskens, a board member with the equine therapy organization, was key in bringing Smoke to the U. S., according to Folsom.

“Had it not been for Lisa, I don’t think I would have ever found Smoke,” Folsom said.

However, Roskens said Folsom did “all the heavy lifting.” She “just happened” to have a friend who had been deployed to Iraq and had “a lot of connections.”

“I never want to try to take any credit away from him because he’s the one who really made it happen,” Roskens said.

Smoke was “predominantly” used for veterans’ programs at Take Flight Farms, according to Roskens, but also was a “fan favorite” in other programs. The donkey’s personal journey of survival, overcoming obstacles and accepting help could translate to those he worked with, according to Roskens.

“It was interesting because not only was he incredibly effective in the arena [as a therapy animal], he turned out to be a great ambassador for the program,” Roskens said.

The reaction and reception Smoke received as a part of Take Flight Farms’ equine therapy program surprised Cate.

“I interviewed a few people who work with that program, who related these personal and other stories to me, and I was just staggered by how much this little donkey came to mean to the people in this program,” Cate said.

Smoke died in 2012, and a short time later Cate began writing Smoke the Donkey: A Marine’s Unlikely Friend. The Book was published in 2016 after threeand- a-half years of research and interviews with roughly three dozen people.

“[The] ordeal that [Smoke’s journey] turned into was so amazing,” Cate said, “and then the work Smoke did once he arrived in the United States was, again, amazing to me.”

For more information on Smoke and his journey to the U.S., visit smokethe donkey.com.


Service members looking to reunite with animal companions from their time in a warzone can seek assistance through SPCA International’s Operation Baghdad Pups program.

Stephanie Scott, director of marketing and communications for SPCA International, said the process starts with an application, which can be found at https://www.spcai.org/get-involved/ military-support/obp-worldwide/ request-assistance/. The animal then is placed on a waiting list, and the “urgency of the rescue” determines when the animal is scheduled for transport.

In Erbil, Iraq, Scott said, there is a kennel where dogs are housed, while cats are fostered. SPCA International has one employee in Erbil, who typically flies the animals to the United States. The organization also uses volunteers.

The process, from the time the application is submitted, averages roughly oneand- a-half months, according to Scott. As of press time, SPCA International had a waiting list of more than 40 rescues.

The program initially focused on animals in the Middle East, but has since expanded to Romania, the Philippines, Africa and Kuwait. For more information, visit https://www.spcai.org/.

‘A Marine’s Unlikely Friend’

To learn more about Smoke, Cate Folsom’s book, Smoke the Donkey: A Marine’s Unlikely Friend, can be purchased through Amazon or Barnes & Noble.