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Iraq. On the graves of two soldiers one British, one American two rifles are crowned with the dead men's helmets. In front of concertina wire, silhouetted against a blue sky, stands a soldier weighed down with a heavy pack. She holds her rifle across her body, her head bowed, eyes closed in prayer. It's a picture of military honor.
Soldiers stationed in Iraq say that the fact that she is a squirrel wearing miniature combat fatigues and holding a tiny AK-47 makes her even more inspiring.
Her name is Sugar Bush Squirrel, and she is the pampered pet of Boca Raton resident Kelly Foxton. More than a thousand photographs of Sugar Bush can be found on her website, sugarbushsquirrel.com, showing her as everything from a blushing bride to the pope.
But it's the shots of Sugar Bush in military getups that bring in the most web traffic. Photos of the squirrel posing with firearms, riding tiny tanks, and uncovering terrorist weapons in Afghanistan and Iraq have been a sensation. With almost a million hits in its first year of operation, the rodent's website has apparently been boosting troop morale better than George Bush handing out Thanksgiving turkey in a Baghdad mess hall.
The most popular Sugar Bush snapshot by far is "Searching for Osama," a photograph of the squirrel in a tiny turban and wearing a chilling jihadi stare. The caption explains that Sugar Bush is undercover in Afghanistan, searching for the leader of al Qaeda. She shoots to kill.
Ben Ford was so moved by the Osama photograph that he tattooed an image of it on his calf. A 29-year-old sergeant in the Army National Guard stationed in Iraq, Ford has used other Sugar Bush photos as his desktop computer's wallpaper, such as one of the squirrel praying at the graveside of allied soldiers.
"Sugar Bush has been a huge inspiration on me, and I got the tat to prove it," he says. The tattoo design is in memory of his best friend, Staff Sgt. Mike McMullin, who died in an insurgent attack in Ramadi last year. Before finding Sugar Bush, Ford struggled with how to best remember McMullin, who was nicknamed "Squirrel" by his buddies for his manner and odd, squirrel-like back hair. Sugar Bush was perfect.
"He's holding an M-16, and he has a Camel cigarette in his mouth," says Ford, who Photoshopped the picture to make it a more personal memorial. "I got it done before I went down and met his family. I showed them, and they were more than impressed."
It's not just soldiers who love Sugar Bush. Foxton's e-mail inbox is perpetually filled with letters of praise from homefront patriots across the country.
"Thank God for our ALL volunteer military, the finest and most powerful in the world and thank God for President Bush," wrote one recently. "Keep up the good work and may God bless you for what you are doing."
Last year, soon after her website launched, Sugar Bush made a British tabloid, the militant mammal starring in a two-page photo spread in the Sun. Then she received requests for television appearances from the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Animal Planet. Film crews from as far away as Sweden came calling. The producers of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wanted Sugar Bush to pose for a DVD extra for the film. Foxton turned them all down.
"I didn't want to betray her trust," she says.
Sugar Bush has even attracted the attention of the enemy. "I get e-mails from Arabs I even sent one of them to the CIA," Foxton says. "I think for a while they've been intercepting my e-mails anyway." According to Foxton, this particular correspondent claimed to know the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, but the CIA wasn't interested in following up the tip.
"They should check every lead don't fluff us off," Foxton says. "This guy has information about Osama, and he's willing to tell Sugar Bush."
Foxton's own career as a military pinup set the stage for Sugar Bush's superstardom.
After a childhood in Athens, Georgia, and a college career spent winning national championships for baton twirling, Foxton, whose real name is Joyce Sanders, struck it big when she was 29. She was plucked from an audience in Nashville by Hank Snow, an aging country singer and Grand Ole Opry staple, for her singing talent and her good looks. She signed with RCA in 1981 to cut two albums and "a slew of singles" with Snow, and for a decade, she was his busty duet partner, charming audiences with ballads such as "Win Some Lose Some Lonesome."
In 1983, Foxton was living in New York City and Nashville when a suicide bomber killed 241 American servicemen in Beirut.
"I saw it on the news and thought, 'There's got to be something to do for all the guys over there. '"
So she paid to send to troops thousands of copies of a pinup shot of herself saluting with a gun in a bathing suit, heels, and an officer's hat. In response, she received hundreds of letters, a modest show of media attention, and the nickname "Military Pin-Up Queen of the 1980s." Her image was tacked on barrack walls from Beirut to Grenada. Meanwhile, the singing continued. In the 1990s, wanting to broaden her audience, she went solo, moving back east to South Florida to work the cruise ships.