In January 2009, the US inaugurated a new president committed to ending the Iraq War. And at a mess hall that same month, dozens of Marines laughed uproariously to the mangling of a Kenny Rogers song: “Yes, he’s once, twice, three times a donkey.... I loooooovvvvvveeeeee youuuuuuuuu.”
Boy did they, and not just the Marines. Smoke the stray donkey brought a reminder of beloved pets back home to one of the most foreign places any American could imagine, winning over everyone from top military brass to pro athletes.
In addition to good feelings, Smoke inspired endless wordplay, thanks to a three-letter word for donkey, and sparked a remarkable international logistical operation. Meanwhile, countless viewers and readers tracked his doings thanks in part to a crucial Christian Science Monitor article.
This unlikely tale unfolds in the new book Smoke the Donkey: A Marine’s Unlikely Friend. The author is Cate Folsom, wife of Col. John Folsom, who transformed this scruffy donkey from stray to wartime icon to therapy animal.
Here are five fun facts about "Smoke the Donkey," a “mascot, ambassador, and battle buddy”:
1. It all started with "Heehaw"
In August 2008, Folsom was serving as commandant at Iraq’s Camp al Taqaddum, where Marines had to sleep through the thwap-thwap-thwap of helicopters and the drone of generators. But it was the braying of a donkey – “heehaw, heehaw, heehaw!” – that snapped Folsom out of sleep early one morning.
The noise came from an emaciated, three-feet-tall gray donkey tied to a eucalyptus tree. He was friendly despite his predicament, and he was there because Folsom wanted it so. He’d been looking for a donkey because his commanding general thought it would be funny to catch one, and Folsom figured it would be neat to keep one. They were right on both counts.
2. Donkey discipline: make it snappy
Folsom learned early on that Smoke – so named because he gobbled a lit cigarette – wasn’t some docile house cat or lap dog. As donkeys do, he kicked his hind legs when he wanted to get a message across.
Fortunately, donkeys are smart, and they’re trainable too, sort of. The key, a donkey trainer told him, is to discipline them within eight seconds of when they break a rule. Otherwise, they won’t make the connection.
Folsom firmly used a plastic baseball bat to get the lessons across. But Smoke followed his own counsel about things like food, snarfing bowls of candy and tomato plant leaves in a staff sergeant’s treasured garden.
3. Meet the $30,000 donkey
By 2010, Smoke was a minor celebrity back home in the US, and Folsom – now retired – wanted to bring him to his home state of Nebraska to work with children who’d survived trauma.
But Smoke didn’t belong to the Marines anymore since a major had given him away to a sheik. As the story went, the sheik gave him to a family who now wanted $30,000 to get him back. So much for the plan to fly the donkey to the US via the Netherlands and Kuwait.
This is when The Christian Science Monitor turned Smoke into a star – thanks to a story by Iraq-based correspondent Jane Arraf. The article began this way – “It’s probably safe to say that Smoke is the most sought-after donkey in Iraq” – and inspired news coverage of Smoke’s unfortunate predicament.
4. Donkey transport? Try the Turkish Embassy
Smoke wouldn’t be destined to live out his days in al-Anbar Province, although getting him out was anything but easy or inexpensive.
But Folsom was as stubborn as his charge, and worked connections to find assistance from the nation of Turkey, a Canadian-based organization called Operation Baghdad Pups, and an American animal handler.
The problem? Everything. Red tape, misunderstandings, and more threatened to keep the donkey at bray. Er, bay. For his part, Smoke languished at a farm where his handler sent this report: “Smoke is doing great. He loves to tease the dogs, eat the pet rabbit’s food, and run to the gate to greet anyone that arrives. He is quite the character.”
5. "Donkey Diatribe," Line Two!
After endless obstacles, Smoke finally made it to the US and immediately began his victory tour. He chowed on bluegrass, hobnobbed with the Virginia horse set, and got squired across Manhattan to appear on local news. Apples and carrots greeted him, and he purloined some Cheerios, cardboard box and all.
More than 900 donors had helped support his voyage across the world, and he’d found a new nation to call home. Now it was time, tracked by news media from around the world, to head to Nebraska and home at a horse therapy program.
But first, he made his way into a ring tone.
Smoke liked to be fed on time. One day when a handler showed up late, he let her have it with a 48-second “donkey diatribe.” She recorded it and enjoyed the startled reactions when someone would call while she was out and about.
Heehaw, heehaw, heehaw. It’s for you!
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.