MARGERY A. BECK
FORT CALHOUN, Neb. (AP) -- Smoke The Donkey brayed loudly and pawed at the door of his trailer as it slowed to a stop in the gravel lot of a Nebraska horse ranch Wednesday. He spent a couple of seconds sniffing the strange ground before ambling toward the edge of the drive to dine on his first Nebraska delicacy: dandelions.
After traveling more than 6,000 miles from Iraq, Smoke will now call an eastern Nebraska pasture home.
Smoke became a friend and mascot to a group of U.S. Marines living in Iraq's Anbar Province nearly three years ago. The chest-high donkey, named for his grayish-tan color, soon became such a part of the unit that he received his own care packages and cards. Marines took care of him until 2009, when they left the area, then turned Smoke over to a sheik who promised to care for him.
But one Marine, retired Marine Col. John Folsom, couldn't get the donkey off his mind. It was Folsom who had fed Smoke and taken the animal for walks for eight months before returning to the U.S.
Smoke "was a battle buddy, and you don't leave your battle buddy behind," Folsom said.
When Folsom later asked about the donkey and learned it had been turned loose to forage for itself in the area, he got to work trying to get the donkey to the United States.
Folsom, the founder of a support group for military families, Wounded Warriors Family Support, immediately hit a web of red tape in the effort, including required blood tests for the animal, health certifications and forms from customs, agriculture and airline officials. He got help from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International, which has a project that transports dogs and cats from Iraq to the United States.
Even that group juggled a plethora of difficulties, including a week-long delay in getting Smoke to Turkey, then another three-week delay to get the animal airlifted on a cargo plane to New York last week. Overall, between $30,000 and $40,000 was raised through private donations to fund Smoke's international move.
Earlier this week, the animal was loaded into a large horse trailer lined with hay and driven to Nebraska by Folsom to Miracle Hills Ranch and Stables near Fort Calhoun, about 15 miles north of Omaha.
By the time Folsom arrived in New York to take Smoke to Nebraska, nearly two years had passed since the two had seen each other.
Folsom said he can't be sure that Smoke remembered him, but added, "He hee-hawed at me. I'm the guy who brought him hay and bagels, so I think he remembers that."
Smoke will live out the rest of his life as a therapy animal with Take Flight Farms, an equine therapy program.
"As soon as we're comfortable that he's comfortable, we'll start putting him with the other horses for therapy sessions," said Gale Faltin, executive director of Take Flight.
It might be a short wait. Smoke had been out of his trailer only minutes before trotting over to nuzzle a nearby white mare named Annie, who seemed to return the smaller equine's affections.
That's typical of the pack animal's personality, Folsom said. And Smoke already has experience in providing comfort to humans; he gave the Marines who cared for him in Iraq something other than the horrors of war to talk about when they contacted their families.
"He was a conversation starter for a lot of the dads when they talked to their kids back home," Folsom said. "He did a lot of good for us, morale-wise."
"It's nice to know he's going to be well-fed and get great care from now on. If you think about a donkey, they're humble little creatures. They don't expect much."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.