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01-17-09, 06:45 AM #1
Marines in Iraq fall for heehaw honey of a mascot
Published Saturday January 17, 2009
Marines in Iraq fall for heehaw honey of a mascot
BY MATTHEW HANSEN
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
His name is Smoke, he likes hay and long walks in the desert, and he'll soon be married to the Marine Corps if an Omaha Marine stationed in Iraq gets his way.
Col. John D. Folsom has spent the past month playing matchmaker, slicing through red tape as he tries to find an American home for an Iraqi donkey who has become a beloved creature at Camp Taqaddum in Iraq.
A one-way plane ticket to the United States is the natural next step in the flowering relationship between Smoke and the Marines stationed west of Baghdad — big, tough Marines who feed the donkey treats, regularly snap his photo and coo at him when no one else can hear.
It's an affair of the heart that began when the malnourished, wounded animal happened onto the U.S. military base last year, unwittingly stumbling upon Marines who welcomed a floppy-eared friend in the once dangerous and often tedious Anbar province.
"There's been a lot of bonding on both sides of that fence," Folsom said by phone Friday from Iraq. "The truth is, you can't help but love ol' Smoke."
The affair began after another donkey wandered onto the base last year, found himself surrounded by dozens of the United States' best-trained fighters — and proceeded to elude every last Marine and run away.
Someone videotaped the scene, speeded it up for comedic effect and set it to Boots Randolph's "Yakety Sax" — music familiar to those who know "The Benny Hill Show." Brig. Gen. Robert Ruark and Folsom laughed when they saw the tape, but they also issued an order: The next time a donkey comes onto the base, actually catch him.
One August morning, Folsom awoke to an ear-splitting "Heehaw!" He walked outside and found a donkey tied to a tree and braying his lungs out.
It marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
A military veterinarian treated Smoke's wounds — which included cuts on his face — and de-wormed him and gave him a rabies shot.
Folsom found an Iraqi vendor to supply hay, which he fed to fatten the skin-and-bones donkey during the scorching summer months when the country's native grasses burn up.
The Marines built Smoke a corral. When they realized he didn't care for wind or rain, they built him a stable, too.
Folsom and the young donkey began to take long evening walks together around the camp. Well, one of them walks. Smoke sprints wildly about the desert, jumping and braying and returning to Folsom only when he's tired.
As the walks increased, Folsom began worrying about Smoke's fate when the Marines returned home.
Could the donkey go back to his old life, a harsh existence foraging for food in a country torn by war? Would he even survive?
"I don't know the first . . .thing about donkeys," Folsom said. "But as I thought about it, I thought we'd accepted some responsibility for the animal. We became responsible when we made him a member of the family."
As Folsom hatched a plan — which he code-named Operation Donkey Drop — Smoke's fame began to grow. Marines snapped his picture and e-mailed it to their families in the United States. Their children immediately fell in love.
One young daughter asks about the donkey every time she writes her father, Folsom said.
The Marines made him a blanket that features the unit's logo on one side and "Kick Ass" on the other. Smoke wore the blanket when he pranced in front of the marching Marines during a 9/11 parade.
Smoke has met Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps. Or was it Conway who met Smoke?
During the holidays, Smoke got gifts and Marine families mailed him treats. A wiseacre from California sent the donkey a politically themed (and R-rated) second blanket.
"I would venture to say he's the most famous donkey in Iraq," Folsom said.
Now Folsom is working to find Smoke a home.
He cleared an early hurdle when the Marine Corps sanctioned Smoke as a therapy animal, allowing him to remain on base. Capt. Michael Hoffer, the battalion's senior surgeon, successfully argued that Smoke relieved stress in the combat troops.
Folsom also believes that, after some searching, he's found a permanent home for Smoke.
The Corps' Mountain Warfare Training Center in California is looking for more donkeys than the five it already has. Col. Norm Cooling, the center's commanding officer, has agreed to take Smoke provided Folsom can get him back into the United States legally.
Folsom has enlisted another high-powered ally in his fight. Roger Lempke, retired adjutant general of the Nebraska National Guard and now U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns' military affairs director, has helped to research the federal regulations related to the importation of an Iraqi donkey.
"The best thing about it from my perspective was that it was my first day in (Johanns') office," Lempke said. "So I got to go home and tell my wife that I worked on a donkey problem."
The progress leaves Folsom hopeful. During Friday's walk with Smoke, the donkey scrambled away. For a few minutes, man could not find beast and beast could not find man.
Then Iraq's most famous donkey reappeared on the top of a hill, looked around frantically, and brayed "Heehaw!" at the top of his lungs.
"It was funny. He was hollering, like, 'Where are you, Dad?'" Folsom said.
"I don't want to take him home with me. But I definitely need to find him a good home."
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