Military working donkey's story provides inspiration
April 26, 2013
Most people have heard of military working dogs, but few know Smoke: the military donkey who inspired many to help Families of wounded servicemembers.
Smoke started out as a rescue in Iraq, but went on to help many servicemembers and their children as a therapy donkey and later the mascot for the Wounded Warriors Family Support Program.
On April 18, WWFS program founder John Folsom, the retired Marine colonel who first took Smoke in during a deployment, visited the Army Officers' Wives Club Greater Washington Area at the Fort Myer Officers' Club to tell Smoke's story and promote awareness for WWFS.
Smoke wandered into Folsom's Marine camp in Iraq in 2008 and immediately became "a morale booster," Folsom said.
"I would take Smoke for walks and what we'd attract was the attention of Soldiers and Marines who came out with their little cameras to take pictures of Smoke. Those pictures went back home to kids and now the children of these deployed Marines and Soldiers (want to) have a conversation about a donkey. He helped open up lines of communication with kids, so that dads could stay engaged with their kids," Folsom said.
Later, Smoke moved to the U.S. and became a therapy donkey.
"Because he wasn't a big, overpowering, 1600-pound horse -- he was a lot smaller -- he was more approachable to children. What they used him for was Family therapy programs with children and returning veterans," Folsom said.
He also became a mascot for the WWFS program, because of his special connection with military children. Smoke died in 2012, but his legacy continues through the program. Additionally, WWFS adopted a new donkey mascot, named Hope.
Folsom first created the WWFS program in 2003 to boost morale for servicemembers injured in combat. Now, through charitable donations, the program has expanded to fund vacations for military Families with one parent injured or killed in combat, to locations including Universal Studios in Florida or the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. The vacations are designed to give Families the chance to bond or heal together.
"I recognized early on that we had young Soldiers who were married and had kids and would seek to make the Army a career, but sometimes, unfortunately, that career is cut short by combat -- lost legs, TBI (traumatic brain injury). A lot of these young Soldiers are going to live on disability. But who is also in that mix? Not just the young Soldier, but children of young Soldiers," Folsom said.
"I thought, 'We've got to do something for these Families. We need to do something to make sure that children of these young Soldiers that have been wounded or injured in combat can do the kinds of things that we take for granted,'" Folsom said. "We can help Families build memories."
Topics like the WWFS and Smoke hit close to home for members of the wives' club, according to Nancy Stevenson, AOWCGWA first vice president and programs director.
"I like to get programs that are either entertaining or are going to boost some kind of awareness for people," she said. With WWFS, "there's a need and the Family members are the ones that a lot of times get lost in the shuffle," she added.
Club member Bron Davis said she was touched by this meeting's topic.
"I can understand how terrible war is on Soldiers. (Folsom) is doing a tremendous job taking care of those men and women who are wounded," she said.
For more information on the WWFS program and Smoke, visit www.woundedwarriorsfamilysupport.org.
The AOWCGWA is a non-profit organization designed to promote and provide outreach to Soldiers, Family members and Department of the Army civilians in the region, support organizations that benefit Soldiers and encourage interaction among club members, according to the club's constitution. The club meets once a month from September through May. For more information, visit www.aowcgwa.org.