Army Veteran Battling Terminal Cancer Gets His Wish to Shoot a Tank One Last Time

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Jay Tenison visits the Maneuver Center of Excellence
Jay Tenison, a retired Armor Crew Member battling stage IV stomach cancer, visits the Maneuver Center of Excellence to fire his final shot from an Abrams Main Battle Tank. (U.S. Army photo by Patrick A. Albright, MCoE Photographer)

Doctors estimated in September that Jay Tenison, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, had 3-6 months to live. One of the things on his bucket list was to fire a tank one last time.

Tenison, 39, is a former tanker who served from 2004 to 2008 on active duty and another five years in the Army Reserve. On Tuesday, he got to check that item off the list -- he fired his last shot at Fort Moore, Georgia.

“It was everything I had hoped for, and went beyond my expectation,” he told Military.com. When asked how he did on the gunnery event, which included the M1A2 Abrams main battle tank engaging multiple targets, he said, “I killed everything.”

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It was the culmination of a major movement in the Army community to get Tenison into an Abrams tank one last time after he posted the request on Reddit late last year. He reported his hair had started falling out, he was growing increasingly fatigued and had lost at least 60 pounds.

“To me, this is one of the most special things I will do in command,” Col. Ryan Kranc, commander of the 316th Cavalry Brigade, which oversees training for cavalry and armor troops, told Military.com. “It's humbling.”

Tenison was also awarded the Order of Saint George, a unique and prestigious medal worn around the neck, given to cavalry and tanker soldiers for outstanding service.

In early 2022, Tenison was diagnosed with Stage IV stomach cancer after reporting pain to his doctors. After months of chemotherapy, he got the worst news of his life -- there was nothing medical care could do for him and his doctor recommended he focus on quality of life.

Before the live fire, Tenison was put into a simulation of the Abrams, a virtual reality tool all soldiers go through before gunnery. He says he was quickly able to relearn how the tank operates. His only concern was climbing in and out of the tank. He also got to speak with basic trainees in tanker school, who wore COVID-19 pandemic-era masks to protect him.

The Abrams is relatively unchanged since Tenison’s time in service, which included a deployment to Ramadi, Iraq, with 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment, during a kinetic time in the region. He spent some of the mission behind a desk doing administrative work, but also was a part of convoys for resupply missions and taking the dead off the battlefield.

“We lost seven or eight guys; I got to carry the bodies back,” Tenison recalled. “We would just go and retrieve them. They would already be in a body bag.”

He was struggling in college and with other personal matters when he joined the Army at 20 years old. Like many enlistees, he needed a reset button and was seduced by the $7,000 enlistment bonus to become a tanker.

He jokes that the Army’s pitch shouldn’t have been as easy as it was, but adds that he doesn’t have any regrets. He later earned his master’s degree in engineering from Arizona State University and had a passion for renewable energy, particularly solar power. He worked on designs for solar arrays for local municipalities and the Department of Veterans Affairs, including a project at the Los Angeles VA hospital.

In addition to getting behind a tank one last time, he spent time at the beach in Pensacola, Florida, with his daughters. They also took a trip to Disney World. One of the last things on his bucket list is skydiving.

“I feel really special,” Tenison said. “I’m going to make a video diary for my daughters for when they’re older. I’m going to tell them to keep on going and keep giving back. I’m hoping I can explain to them that this was a huge thing and what happens when a community supports itself.”

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