Our Story - The Patriotic Elk Foundation

An Incredible Moment in History

In the early morning hours of December 23rd, 2016,
something truly amazing and unexplainable happened
on the tiny Tonto Apache Reservation in Payson, Arizona.

Jeri DeCola at her home on the Tonto Apache Reservation overlooking Payson and the Mogollon Rim

In the early morning hours of December 23rd, 2016, something truly amazing and unexplainable happened on the tiny Tonto Apache Reservation in Payson, AZ.
Just as he does every morning, Joseph “JJ” DeCola, an 83-year-old disabled Korean War Veteran, rose early to start another busy day. As he went out the front door, JJ noticed that the family of elk that come up for morning visits were busy feeding in the front yard. JJ’s wife Jeri, one of just a few full blooded Tonto Apaches, was just getting up to start her day as the tribe’s Chairperson.
And then it happened…
As JJ glanced at his front yard, with a stunning view of downtown Payson and the majestic Mogollon Rim, there she was. A 300 lb. female elk was standing next to their flagpole, staring straight up, and absolutely transfixed on the American Flag!
JJ couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He just stood there for a moment and then realized the elk wasn’t moving a muscle. He would later say, “It was like she was a statue. She knew I was standing there, the other elk were feeding all around her, yet there she was her head raised directly up to the flag!”

Jeri heard JJ come through the door. “Jeri, get up, grab your phone and get out here right away. There’s an elk staring straight up at the flag and we have to get a picture of it. Hurry!”

It took a moment for Jeri to fully understand what was happening. An Elk was doing what? And she had to get a picture of it? “Hurry Jeri, please!” JJ called out from the kitchen. Jeri found her phone, put on her coat and shoes, and rushed past an impatient 83-year old man now holding the front door open.

This is where that something “truly amazing and unexplainable” happened.

That elk had not moved an inch and there was an unmistakable high pitched cry in the air.

“Jeri, she’s still there just like I left her only her mouth is open now”, JJ excitedly whispered.

Carefully raising her phone, Jeri captured the moment without even checking her settings. The picture turned out perfect.

Then, they just stood there, taking it all in. Neither one of them can exactly remember how long it was until the elk stopped mewing, slowly dropped her head, gave them a seemingly “thankful” look, and then joined to graze with the rest of the herd.

As JJ recalls, “For some reason, I then started to remember the faces of kids from my old neighborhood, those who never came home from World War 2 and Korea. Patriotic kids, with a real respect for our American flag and everything it stands for. I honestly began to get a bit emotional thinking about them, especially with everything that has been happening in our country recently. And then it hits me. It took one female elk on a tiny Native American Indian Reservation in Payson, AZ to remind us what really matters. We are Americans, and we have always rallied around one magnificent American Flag. In my lifetime, the United States of America has been through a lot. I’ve seen it for myself, and I’m sure we will continue to go through a lot more. But we will make it, because we always have, and we always will. I truly believe that.”

Original Photo of Patriotic Elk taken Dec. 23rd, 2016

For Jeri, that morning seemed to give her more clarity. ”Later that day, I remember thinking what JJ and I had witnessed was a sign or a message that sometimes it takes a natural creature doing an unnatural thing to get our attention. And she certainly did that! I truly hope and pray that what our mama elk did will bring a healing message to America that we need desperately right now.”

As the weeks and months went by, with Memorial Weekend approaching and all the holiday events planned, both Jeri and JJ realized that they had to share what happened that December day with their local community. Soon the “Patriotic Elk” photo was featured in the Payson Roundup newspaper. Then came numerous calls from local family, friends and various organizations to “get that “Patriotic Elk” on a T-Shirt!”

And the rest as they say folks is history. What that one mama elk inspired has, in turn, inspired a national “Patriotic Elk” movement that is beyond words. In August 2017, the original photo was sent to one of the top T-Shirt Design Companies in the country. What came back was stunning and, as you will see, perfectly captured an amazing and miraculous moment.

Thank you for supporting the Patriotic Elk Foundation. We know you will fall in love with our “Little Lady Liberty” and the Foundation she inspired!

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