By Pablo Lujan, SFC - USN/USA, Ret.
My hunt started with a phone call from Tom Wagner, lead coordinator for Heroes Rising Outdoors, Arizona Elk Society’s outreach program for disabled veterans in Arizona. It was a normal phone cal–well, so I thought. We had been talking for a few minutes when Tom asked if I’d like to hunt elk by way of a donated elk tag. He then mentioned the clincher–“Pablo, by the way, it’s an archery bull tag in Unit 1.” I accepted on the spot! This would be my first archery hunt ever, and to hunt bull elk in one of the premium hunt units in the state of Arizona–wow, what an awesome opportunity!
Two weeks later and it was the week my hunt was to start. My hunting caregiver, Paul S., and I headed up to Sprucedale Lodge south of Alpine, Arizona to meet up with Jon Buseman, HRO’s White Mountain hunt coordinator. The lodge’s location offers some amazing views and features great accommodations! The evening before my hunt was to start, we had an awesome dinner with other hunters and were introduced to my guide, Tyler H. Plans for the following morning’s hunt were agreed upon–we’d be leaving for the woods two hours before daylight. Opening morning found us heading to a meadow where Tyler (“T-Light”) had been seeing a herd of elk. We settled into our spot while it was still dark–we could hear bugling bulls not too far away. As daylight approached, so did the screaming bulls!
We moved quietly to get a bit closer, hoping for a decent shot opportunity. We could hear the elk herd as it moved in our direction. That’s when Mother Nature’s plans took a detour. Just when we thought we would see our first elk, a pack of coyotes started howling and barking. Bye-bye elk! The herd was pushed back into the thick forest as we stood there in disbelief. To say we were disappointed is an understatement. The rest of opening morning found us moving to several locations that gave us different views of the countryside. We sat for a while at each, glassing ‘til lunch time. Later we did locate some mature bulls that afternoon–unfortunately none gave me a shot opportunity. We made a plan to back out, hoping to find them again the next morning.
The next two days went about the same–seeing elk, getting close for a shot, only to get busted by cow elk. Even though my injuries challenged me in closing distances to where I might have an ethical shot, T-Light and Paul were super patient, positive, and supportive. Sunday came to a close and Tyler had to return to work. Paul and I decided to join some other friends, including volunteer Gilbert G., who were camped and hunting nearby in Unit 27.
Day 4 arrived and Gilbert was positive we would see elk (and possibly have a shot opportunity) at a spot he knew about in Unit 1. Upon arriving at that location, we gathered our gear and started to hike into the woods. We had no idea what was about to take place. Only about two hundred yards into our hike, we could hear bugling in the distance. Things were looking up! We continued working our way towards the elk at my slow pace, listening to the bugles as we hiked.
We crossed a small clearing and started up a draw. As we approached the top of the draw, it was clear we were in the feeding path of a herd of elk! We picked out a tree for me to stand behind and I set up for my shot. Due to my injuries I have to shoot a crossbow, and use a shooting stick for support. Elk continued to move about, grazing and talking back and forth between themselves. It was a bit overwhelming to be so close to all that activity!
The first group of elk crossed in front of us at about 10 yards and included 4 cows and a 2x2 raghorn bull. Gilbert and Paul shook their heads “no,” not to shoot. The elk fed past us. Meanwhile, bulls were screaming all around us. I could not see what Gilbert and Paul were seeing coming down the draw. All I could hear was Gilbert calling out yardages, “90 yards–no shot yet.” Paul kept repeating “Get ready, calm yourself, don’t look at his rack, he’s a shooter.” Well, the shooter bull hooked some cows away from another mature bull, never to be seen again. About 30 seconds later I heard Gilbert: “72 yards, 71 yards, switch to the other side of the tree, 69 yards, 67 yards.”
All the while bulls were still screaming, raking small pine trees, stealing cows from each other. I finally eyed a mature bull at about 65 yards, but a cow elk stood between us and the bull. I had a pretty clear view of the bull, but really no shot due to a downed tree with branches sticking up blocking any shooting lane I might have had. The cow continued feeding, obstructing my view of the bull as she moved about. The bull let out a scream, then moved through an opening 67 yards away. His body filled the scope on my crossbow. My finger started to tighten on the trigger and the bolt was on its way, finding its mark right behind the bull’s shoulder!
A ton of fun was had throughout the hunt! Now reality was about to set in–getting a bull elk field dressed and transported to a meat processor. And that was one large elk, both in body and in antler size. For the record, my bull’s rack taped out to 360-7/8” SCI. Recovering my bull would not have happened as smoothly without the help of all the guys from Elk Camp Unit 27! Kenny and Kelly S., Refugio “Cuco” D., Adrian and A.J.F., Beto and Danny G., Dave L., Gabe “G-Lite,” and Lito P. (thanks for scoring my bull)–my body thanks all of you!! My time in the military was divided between the Navy and Army. I was medically discharged in 2013 due to spinal cord and other service-connected injuries. Heroes Rising Outdoors has given me a chance to heal while experiencing Arizona’s beautiful outdoors. This goes beyond my physical injuries–the time I now spend as a hunter conservationist has given me the opportunity to relax away from the often-times craziness of city life. To add to that, I’ve had the chance to meet other Arizona wounded veterans as we’ve started to build a new brotherhood of Arizona vets who find the outdoors a place of renewal.
A big thanks goes out to Arizona Elk Society’s Heroes Rising Outdoors, and to those who choose to donate their big game tags so veterans can hunt, as well as to the many volunteers who selflessly give of their time and expertise! You all have helped me reconnect with the outdoors I love so much. Harvesting a bull elk was a special bonus!
Special thanks go out to Mr. D. for donating your bull elk tag! Also to Tom Wagner and Jon Buseman of HRO for putting my elk hunt together. The hunt wouldn’t have been successful without the guiding skills of Taylor “T-Lite” H., Paul S., and Gilbert “G-Heavy” G.–you guys are the best! Thanks also to Premier Taxidermy for the use of the crossbow and for mounting my bull! I’ll never forget the awesome accommodations supplied by Sprucedale Ranch and Lodge (my body will be forever grateful!). Fabulous meals and relaxing views --- it couldn’t get any better!
I would recommend Heroes Rising Outdoors to any veteran who may have thought they’d lost the ability to get out and enjoy life!
Thanks to the Arizona Elk Society, it is possible!
by Luther Morgan, Army Specialist (Vietnam),
Prior to 2020, my experiences with hunting had been very minimal since my younger years growing up in Prescott, Arizona. It has been something, though, that truly never left me. I can recall stories that family members and close friends shared with me over the years of their adventures in the outdoors. Stories full of excitement, trials and tribulations, and the camaraderie of fellow hunters. As I’d listen, the excitement from their experiences enveloped me. How I longed for experiences like those of my own!
Not knowing where to begin with the daunting process of getting started, which meant applying for hunts to acquire my own big game tags, I reached out to a good friend of mine who is well-versed in the entire process. After further discussion, he informed me about a local organization, Arizona Elk Society, and its Heroes Rising Outdoors program that specializes in taking wounded warriors on hunting trips. It turned out that, as an Army veteran who had been injured while serving in Vietnam, I could enroll in the program and have the opportunity to make my own memories in the field. With my application to the program completed, I waited anxiously for what the future might bring. My jaw dropped when I received a call from Tom Wagner, HRO program coordinator, who informed me of an unbelievable opportunity that had become available.
Mark Montanez is an Arizona resident who had been applying for desert bighorn sheep for several decades and had accumulated maximum bonus points. The summer of 2020 saw Mark receive both good and bad news. He finally drew his long- anticipated sheep tag but had also injured his shoulder to the extent he would have to forego hunting sheep that year. Rather than turning his sheep tag back in to the Arizona Game & Fish Department, he decided he wanted to see an Arizona disabled vet get the chance of a lifetime. He contacted Heroes Rising Outdoors and soon after that the tag donation process was completed. I will never forget Tom’s phone call telling me of my good fortune!
After fielding Tom’s phone call, I immediately called my brother Roger, also an Army veteran who had piloted Huey helicopters in Vietnam. When I told him the news, he could not believe it either. He exclaimed that he would be in camp even before I got around to inviting him! My anticipation to get into the field to look for desert sheep grew every day and it seemed the number of sheep camp volunteers continued to grow as opening day approached.
After what seemed like an eternity, the day before sheep season was to open finally arrived! I found myself that evening sitting around a blazing campfire with a sizeable group of family members and friends. The Richardson family–Grandpa George, Corky and Russ, Deano and Christian, and even little George, would lead the expedition. Dick Tone would be shouldering the responsibilities of camp cook. Gil Montanez, the tag donor’s brother, represented his brother on the hunt. Many others had also arrived to lend their eyes glassing the mountains for sheep. We talked back and forth while looking at photos taken of rams on earlier scouting trips, sizing up which ones we should consider going after. After much discussion, we came up with a game plan.
The excitement thinking of the morning to come kept me awake most of that night. Even so, the eagerness anticipating the once-in-a-lifetime experience had me spry and ready to roll well before sunrise. Opening morning found us taking in an amazing sunrise as we sat on our glassing knob. The dawn grew into daylight and we eventually glassed up a band of rams down low on the foothills of the mountains to our east. Mixed among the rams was the ram we were after. Wanting to make the most of the opportunity, we waited a while to get a grasp of the situation–what the group of sheep might do and which direction they might go.
The rams continued to side-hill around the mountain, neither gaining nor losing elevation in the process. Now was the time to make a move. The spot the rams were in made for a perfect stalk for Roger to be by my side throughout the entire way. Continued exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam makes it difficult for Roger to navigate difficult terrain, so if he was going to be by my side on any stalk, this would be the one. After maneuvering through a series of desert washes, we found ourselves on the edge of the mesa where we had last seen the rams. Knowing we were in close proximity, we slowly crept forward, scanning each new piece of ground as it unfolded. Suddenly a ram scurried across the hillside at our 9 o’clock position.
He finally stood still, staring us down from 200 yards away. As he stood there the rest of the band followed, ending up standing in line behind the lead ram. With our target ram identified, I got myself in position, placed my rifle’s crosshairs on the chosen ram’s vitals, and squeezed the trigger. As the gunshot went off, the ram hit the ground and cheering erupted! Walking up to the ram I could not put into words the feeling I had. Being able to experience that moment with my brother by my side was something I’ll remember forever. Reminiscing about the hunt, my emotions continued to flow from memories of the opportunity Roger and I shared on that mountain. Countless stories told and memories shared on the hunt–and over the decades together as brothers–will never be forgotten.
This adventure was indeed extra special for both of us –Roger’s health has been declining significantly recently due to advanced lung disease. Roger had been a warrant officer piloting Huey helicopters in Vietnam. He’d been exposed repeatedly to Agent Orange during his continual close support of troops on the ground. I knew that he’d be wounded by gunfire several times, but never knew he’d been awarded a Bronze Star until several decades after the fact. We share a brotherhood beyond just being siblings.
Roger has also submitted his application to Heroes Rising Outdoors. An opportunity arose for the two of us to go javelina hunting together in early 2021 via donated tags, but that hunt had to be cancelled due to his poor health. We’re hoping an opportunity presents itself with HRO so we can get out one more time together hunting deer in southern Arizona this fall. I still cannot believe the number of people who showed up in the middle of the desert to assist in making a special hunt happen for this veteran from another generation. Specifically, this would not have happened without the desert sheep tag donated by Mark Montanez and for Heroes Rising Outdoors bringing everything and the many volunteers together. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!
Heroes Rising Outdoors’ motto is “Healing through Hunting.” While hunting is a special part of the program, it is getting into the quiet of the outdoors itself and away from the city that helps calm the storms inside us. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a young veteran, or a grizzled Vietnam vet like Roger and me, I’m convinced you’ll be a better person for your participation with HRO. While we all may have lost close connection with those who had our back overseas, thanks to the Arizona Elk Society we can link up with a new brotherhood here in Arizona. I encourage you to take that step!
by Matt Butler, USN diver (ret.)
I found out about the Arizona Elk Society’s Heroes Rising Outdoors program through another disabled veteran I fished with. Shortly after we talked, I made a phone call to Tom Wagner, lead coordinator for HRO. Tom explained the history of the Arizona Elk Society and how its respect for the American military veteran had led to the birth of its veteran outreach program. Its motto, “Healing through Hunting” got my attention immediately—it sounded like just what the doctor ordered!
I was surprised when I received a phone call from Tom a couple months later. He offered me a rifle pronghorn (antelope) tag for Unit 10, a practically once-in-a-lifetime tag! A gentleman with maximum bonus points had drawn Tag #1 for that hunt and wanted to give back to a disabled veteran. My excitement grew every day for weeks leading up to the hunt which was scheduled to take place the first weekend of September 2020. I was going to be teamed up with High Point Outfitters of Flagstaff, Arizona. Owners Kevin Call and John Adams welcomed me with open arms and we instantly became family.
We began our hunt in the early morning hours. The High Point Outfitters crew was very professional and very thorough in searching for the perfect antelope. I had an opportunity to look at many bucks, but they insisted I wait for what they deemed a “trophy” pronghorn. On the last day of our hunt, we finally located an antelope that caught everyone’s eye! The guys figured out a game plan for a suitable stalk. It was late afternoon as we made our way to within 500 yards of the buck.
As the sun started sinking towards the horizon, I got prepared for a shot—which I missed! The antelope didn’t move, so I set up for another shot. Adrenaline was pumping and I started talking to myself. Thankfully the guides were next to me, reassuring me that I could get it done. The shots that followed, clean misses, didn’t do their encouragement justice. The buck ended up trotting towards us instead of away, then stopped broadside. I held my breath, exhaling slowly as I pulled the trigger. BAM—the antelope dropped 450 yards away!
That was the most epic ending to a hunt I have ever been on, let me tell you! We took care field dressing and quartering the antelope, finally hiking by headlamp back to our vehicle carrying some incredible organic meat on our backs. What an experience! For myself, hunting in Arizona has been a conduit to friendship and support from some awesome people! It has introduced me to some of the most cherished times I could ever want, and has given me something no doctor, medication or counselor ever could— freedom to meet/ help other like-minded people, freedom to reconnect with the outdoors, and freedom to live a fulfilled life. Talk about priceless!
I want to thank Tom Wagner, Heroes Rising Outdoors coordinator, and the Arizona Elk Society for this opportunity. Also, huge thanks to the truly professional guys at High Point Outfitters (Kevin, John, and Ben) for their acceptance and warm welcome as one of their family. And lastly, a special thank you to John F. Taylor who donated this once-in-a-lifetime antelope tag. You all have truly changed my life and let me experience the most amazing hunt I have ever been on! Life is good!