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He was a donkey, an animal who loved munching carrots and apples.
But to the tough U.S. Marines stationed west of Baghdad, he became much more.
Smoke the Donkey became a friend.
“He was a battle buddy,” retired Col. John Folsom said.
Smoke, an animal the Marines would not leave behind, died late Tuesday or early Wednesday at a quiet ranch north of Omaha, 6,700 miles from the heat and dust of Iraq where he was born.
Efforts last year to bring him to the United States drew national attention, and featured the help of military officers, government officials, foreign journalists and many others. The driving force behind the whole operation was Folsom, whose Marine unit adopted the animal as its mascot during a deployment to Iraq's Sunni Triangle back in 2008.
When Folsom and the other Marines first met Smoke at Camp Taqaddum, a U.S. military base in Iraq's Anbar province, he was wounded and malnourished.
Folsom, the base commander, had given orders that any animals wandering around the camp should be captured.
Then one morning in August 2008, he awoke to find Smoke tied up outside.
Military rules prohibit unit mascots, but a Navy doctor wrote a report attesting to the donkey's positive effect on morale, and the animal was allowed to stay.
He became a huge hit with the other Marines and soldiers on base. Even more importantly Smoke became a hit with children of the troops.
Marines snapped pictures of Smoke and emailed them to their kids. The children fell in love.
Kids would ask their dads about Smoke. They wanted to know what the lovable donkey was up to. They'd send him cards and presents.
Younger kids even thought Smoke might be the same donkey as in the “Shrek” movies.
Smoke gave Marines something to talk about with their kids.
“Kids instantly became engaged,” said Folsom, founder of Wounded Warriors Family Support, a nonprofit that helps military families, “He was a bridge between fathers deployed and their kids.”
After Folsom left Iraq, the Marines on the base continued caring for the donkey. The Army soldiers who followed them, however, turned Smoke over to a local sheik.
Folsom and others eventually tracked down the donkey with the help of high-resolution photos that showed identifying marks on Smoke. After a long battle — with lots of red tape and logistical nightmares — Smoke finally arrived in the United States in May 2011.
Since then he had lived a peaceful life at Miracle Hills Ranch and Stable north of Omaha in Washington County. In Nebraska he began a new life as a therapy animal for Take Flight Farms, a nonprofit that uses equine therapy to help military personnel recover from post-traumatic stress disorder. He received a service animal award this year from the Nebraska Humane Society.
Brenda Sheets, who owns the ranch with her husband, said Smoke was a social animal who loved to nuzzle and get petted.
Tuesday morning Smoke looked fine. He was running around a fenced area with miniature horses. Sheets said she noticed Tuesday afternoon that he seemed a little lethargic and wasn't eating his hay. She took his temperature and did other health checks, but it didn't appear as if immediate veterinary care was needed.
After he died, Smoke was taken to the Humane Society, which plans to cover the cremation costs because of everything the donkey did for veterans.
Randy Garver, a veteran and Humane Society facilities manager, had an American flag in his office that had flown over Iraq. He draped it over the animal.
Folsom, the Marine who bonded with Smoke from the start, called him a tough, loyal, hard-working animal who served the troops well.
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