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!