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John Folsom, who was Camp Taqaddum's commandant in 2008, hopes to bring Smoke the donkey home to Nebraska to brighten the lives of children whose parents are serving overseas.
Folsom and Smoke first met when a Marine under Folsom's command decided to catch one of the many donkeys wandering the base outside Fallujah.
"I came out one Sunday morning and found this donkey tied up outside my hooch," says Folsom, who was with the 1st Marine Logistics Group.
The Marines immediately took a liking to the animal. They fed him, patched up the wounds on his legs and made him their mascot. He got his name for his gray color and tendency to snatch up cigarettes, lit or not.
Although regulations prohibit keeping pets in the war zone, a Navy lieutenant helped designate Smoke a therapy animal, and the donkey was cleared to stay, Folsom says. Eventually word got around, and Smoke started receiving care packages of treats and blankets along with the troops.
When the Marine group pulled out of Taqaddum, it could not take Smoke along. Left in the care of an Army major, the donkey was handed off to a sheik.
Last fall, Folsom decided he wanted Smoke to see the USA. By now, he was the head of Wounded Warriors Family Support, a non-profit organization that helps the families of servicemembers who are killed or wounded in action. Among its offerings to families are free trips to Florida condominiums that are near theme parks and resorts in the Orlando area.
Folsom tracked down the sheik who had Smoke but was told that the former mascot had been given to a family near Fallujah. The sheik said he could get the donkey from the family for $30,000.
"We heard that and said, 'As long as you are taking care of the donkey, that's fine with us,' " Folsom says.
The sheik relented and agreed to round up the donkey for free. Now the challenge is to get Smoke shipped to the USA, he says.
Folsom is working through the Operation Baghdad Pups program, run by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International, to arrange transport.
Since 2008, the program has transported more than 250 dogs and cats to the United States.
Dogs and cats can be brought home on commercial flights, but Smoke will require a special cargo flight. Stephanie Scott, a spokeswoman for SPCA International says her group would foot the bill.
If all goes well, Smoke will live at Take Flight Farms in Omaha, where horses are used to help people cope with disabilities and psychological ailments. There, Folsom says, he hopes Smoke can do for the families of veterans what he did for Marines in Iraq: boost morale.