Marines' donkey mascot comes to U.S. after Iraq rescue

OMAHA, Neb (Reuters) - Smoke the Donkey’s long odyssey from Iraq to Omaha gives new meaning to the U.S. Marine Corps motto “semper fi.”

"Smoke," the donkey mascot adopted by Retired U.S. Marine Colonel John Folsom and recently evacuated from Iraq to a new home in Omaha, Nebraska is seen in this undated file photo shot by Folsom at an unidentified location in Iraq and released by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International on May 18, 2011. REUTERS/John Folsom/SPCAI/Handout

For Retired Marine Colonel John Folsom of Omaha, the Latin phrase -- “semper fidelis” in full -- for “always faithful” has become “semper fi(nally).”

Smoke’s arrival Wednesday in Omaha ends an 18-month international effort to rescue the former Marine mascot from war-torn Iraq.

The donkey will soon begin a new life in Nebraska as a rehabilitation therapy animal for military personnel and their families.

“Smoke is a civilian now,” Folsom said. “His work with the Marines is over. Now he begins his work with children.”

Folsom and his unit rescued the malnourished Iraqi donkey at Camp Taqaddum in 2008. Folsom was the Anbar Province camp’s commander. Marines nursed the donkey back to health and built a corral and stable. Soon Smoke was the unit’s mascot.

Regulations prohibited keeping the donkey but Folsom found a Navy psychologist to designate it a therapy animal because it reduced stress among the Marines. Deployed dads sent their children pictures and stories of Smoke.

The donkey learned to walk into offices and open desk drawers to find apples, carrots and other treats planted there by Marines. Smoke walked in the camp’s September 11 parade cloaked with a blanket emblazoned with the unit’s crest on one side and the words “Kick Ass” on the other.

The donkey accompanied Marines on long walks for exercise. It would steal cigarettes.

“We had a pretty good time together,” Folsom said.

Folsom left Iraq in early 2009. A U.S. Army unit eventually took over the base but didn’t want a donkey mascot. Marines found an Iraqi sheik who said he would adopt Smoke, but Folsom learned in 2010 that the donkey was wandering on its own again.

So Folsom launched “Operation Donkey Drop,” his mission to bring Smoke to the United States as a therapy animal. Folsom is founder of Wounded Warriors Family Support, a nonprofit that helps families of troops wounded or killed in combat.

Folsom enlisted the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International to help wrangle with red tape in Iraq and Turkey and pay for the nearly 7,000-mile journey to America.

Terri Crisp heads the organization’s Operation Baghdad Pups program, bringing home dogs and cats adopted by U.S. troops. Smoke was her first donkey. It was a 37-day ordeal working through the final bureaucratic logjams. Smoke became a celebrity during the process.

“He was a great traveler,” Crisp said, noting Smoke posed for hundreds of photos during a six-hour wait in the Istanbul airport parking lot. “Everywhere we went, he’d draw a crowd.”

Smoke landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City last weekend, and Folsom started driving the donkey to Nebraska on Monday.

After several weeks of rest, Smoke will be free to roam at Take Flight Farms in Omaha, which uses equines in mental health services.

Folsom expects Smoke to be especially valuable in helping therapists engage children with issues about deployed or war-wounded parents.

Reporting and writing by David Hendee; Editing by Jerry Norton