HOLLENBECK: Donkey that inspired compassion now tends wounded warriors

Sometimes the lowliest of creatures can bring out the best in humans.
Case in point: A donkey from a foreign land.
The one that caught my attention recently started out life in Iraq, but recently has become a resident of this county.
I read the Associated Press account with not just a few tears.
This was a touching story of Smoke, a donkey, who became a friend and mascot to a group of U.S. Marines living in a province in Iraq nearly three years ago.
Unfortunately, because of bureaucratic red tape, the donkey had to be left behind.
According to the AP story, Smoke wandered into the Marine camp west of Falluhah, the site of a former Iraqi air base being used by Marines.
The donkey reportedly acquired the name Smoke because he was said to have snatched and eaten a cigarette left by a careless Marine. He became such an integral part of the military unit that he, along with the troops, received his own care packages and cards. The Marines took care of him until 2009 when they left the area, but they turned the animal over to a sheik who reportedly promised to care for him.
Saying goodbye to Smoke probably wasn’t easy for most of the Marines, but apparently it was especially hard on retired Col. John Folsom, who couldn’t forget about the gentle animal. He had been accustomed to walking Smoke daily and had formed a special bond with him.
Reading about this incident conjured up images of that poignant scene in “Fiddler on the Roof” when Tevye tells his horse goodbye as the people of Anatevka are forced to leave their homeland. That’s a two-tissue moment for me.
But back to Smoke and Folsom.
Obviously a man with a big heart — he’s the founder of a support group for military families, Wounded Warriors Family Support — Folsom set out on a mission to bring Smoke to the United States to serve as a therapy animal.
According to the accounts I read, the sheik initially demanded $30,000 for the famous donkey, but later cooperated. But then, as the story goes, there was the bureaucratic struggle to get Smoke nearly 7,000 miles around the world. And in case you didn’t know it, getting an animal across any country’s borders isn’t something that happens without effort. A diseased human can get here pretty easily, but animals are governed by rigorous restrictions. There are blood tests, health certifications and all sorts of forms from customs, agriculture and airlines.
Thankfully, the Society for the prevention of Cruelty to Animals International became involved and came to Folsom’s aid. This group already was engaged in the transport of dogs and cats from Iraq to the United States. Even so, Smoke became the first donkey to get ASPCA assistance.
Airlines have rigid rules about transporting such animals, it seems. No commercial aircraft could be used; instead, a cargo plane was the only option.
According to the accounts I’ve read, getting Smoke to this country cost somewhere between $30,000 and $40,00, which involved shipping a sample of Smoke’s blood from Turkey to a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Iowa at a cost of $150; a Lufthansa flight through Frankfurt, Germany, for $18,890; and a day of quarantine in New York for $400.
Can you imagine the poor donkey’s bewilderment?
Donations paid for all of this and Folsom said it should be considered payback for the donkey that was such a friend to many Marines.
When Smoke arrived, Col. Folsom was there to greet him.
Smoke has now taken up residence in Nebraska at the Wounded Warriors Family Support ranch where he is being reunited with many of his Marine friends and will be serving as a rehabilitation therapy animal.
“We are so excited and thankful to have gained the approval needed to bring Smoke to his new loving home with John Folsom and the Wounded Warriors group,” said Stephanie Scott of SPCA International. “It has been a long journey and we are very grateful to all the people who helped us make this happen, so Smoke can be reunited with his Marine friends and serve an important therapy role helping veterans and their families.”
Folsom said he never stopped thinking about the donkey since leaving Iraq and will be giving him the kind of life and home he deserves in Nebraska.
I’d like to meet Smoke, but realize I probably won’t. However, I did become acquainted a few years back with a donkey named Abigail. She was the resident pet (aka therapy animal) at the Cumberland Presbyterian Children’s Home in Denton, Texas.
One of the things I’ll never forget about Abigail is that she loved Dr Peppers. The children especially enjoyed offering her this treat. And as one Dr Pepper aficionado to another, Abigail and I bonded immediately.
Coincidentally, at that time one of the leaders of our denomination was a theologian named Dr. Morris Pepper. He was a brilliant, charming man who took the time to pet Abigail. I like to think he’s petting Jesus’ donkey in heaven now.
If you’ve never gotten close to a donkey, don’t miss the opportunity if one comes you way. They are gentle, special animals that will worm their way into your heart and soul.
Good luck to Smoke, and hats off to Col. Folsom and others who cared enough to go the second, third and oh-so-many-extra miles to bring one of the least of God’s creatures to the American home where he can love those who loved him — as only an animal can — unconditionally.

Lynda Hollenbeck is associate editor of The Saline Courier.