When Jay Tenison thought about the things he wanted in the final days of his life, one was to fire the cannon on a tank, one more time.

Tenison, 39, spent four years as an Army tanker, deployed to Iraq and served five years in the reserves as an engineer.

On Tuesday, over a decade after his last time in a turret, he got to fire a round from a tank one last time.

Tension shoots a live round at Fort Moore in Georgia. Photo by Mike Lavigne.
Tenison shoots a live round at Fort Moore in Georgia. Courtesy photo.

Tenison spent time the day before the shoot at the 194th Armored brigade at Fort Moore, Georgia, There he spoke to a room of trainees in the 19K career field, armor crewman — exactly where he’d been almost 20 years before. As he spoke about his journey from active duty tanker to Army reserve engineer, the class wore masks for Tenison’s protection.

After a run in the simulator, Tenison and a helpful tank crew headed to the range and went through several rounds of dry firing on the complex loading, targeting and firing machinery of an M-1 Abrams.

Finally, once he had the basics down, it was time to “send it.”

“I was not prepared for the first boom when I fired my first round,” he said after the tank experience. “That was every bit of what I remember from before and just as awesome — the thunder of doom.”

A diagnosis and a final trip to the range

Tenison’s journey to the Fort Moore firing range began in 2022. After receiving a diagnosis – which took longer than expected – Tenison underwent chemotherapy in March 2022 until September when his oncologist told him that his cancer had progressed to the point that they had run out of treatment options.

“It didn’t shatter my world, but it kinda made me take a step back,” Tenison told Task & Purpose.

He found himself thinking about how to spend the time he had left.

“A little over a year ago, I was thinking about bucket list items,” he said, realizing that he still had a “hankering” to do something Army-related. “What I came up with was how I’d like to get back on the tank and do gunnery one last time.”

His final bucket list dream was answered by angels of the Army’s subreddit. “The outpouring of support was absolutely incredible,” Tenison said. Several veterans from the board connected him with officials at Fort Moore.

Tenison completed several other bucket list items over the last year like going to the beach, traveling on a 17-day cruise and taking his seven and eight year old daughters to Disney World.

“I went through all the different stages of grief,” Tenison said. “Eventually I got to the point of acceptance. The crazy thing is that all throughout this whole ordeal, I have been the emotional rock for my family.”

This week Tenison flew into Georgia from Arizona to meet up with his parents, little brother, cousin, and a friend from the reserves. The Army set up time for him to get some practice in a simulator before heading out to a range with an M-1 Abrams Main Battle Tank.

Tanker in Iraq

At 19, Tenison said, he was dealing with failed relationships and an attempt at college that soon faded. That’s when he decided to join the Army. 

“I kid you not, it was just a whimsical decision that I made. I was driving home one night from work, the recruiting station was just the left side of the road and I saw it,” he said. “That’s how fast the decision was.” 

To his parents’ dismay, Tenison enlisted in 2004.

“My mom was less than thrilled that I was going into the army because this is also at the point in time when I guess, soldiers getting killed by IEDS and everything was starting to ramp up in Iraq,” he said.

He chose armor which came with a $7,000 enlistment bonus. “Man oh, man. I really should have thought about that one a little bit more,” he laughed.

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In January 2006, he deployed to Tel Afar in Northern Iraq – about 75 miles west of Mosul. It was the beginning of the U.S. military’s “oil spot strategy.” Tenison didn’t suffer the egregious losses that some of his fellow soldiers did, who lost friends in battle or to bombings. He didn’t feel phased by what he saw, which he thinks could be because of the way his mind operates.

He served in the Army from 2004 to 2008 when he separated and went to college. While studying, Tenison also served in the Army reserves. He later earned a master’s degree in engineering from Arizona State University.

Tenison looks back at his service wondering if his limited exposure to burn pits was part of his health condition. But he’s also tested positive for the PMS 2 genetic mutation which has a higher chance of gastrointestinal and abdominal-type cancers, he said.

“I just process everything in a very logical kind of sense which is very typical of anybody who goes to school for engineering. Your mind is kind of set up a certain way so that way you can know how to think and approach problems,” he said.

For the last six years, he worked as an electrical engineer for HDR until he filed for long-term disability last week. It all came full circle when he was part of a solar panel project with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“My crowning achievement in terms of solar design is at the West Los Angeles VA hospital. There’s a brand new parking garage that’s being built and it’s my design, my [solar] array that’s going on top of the building,” he said.

The last time he had an emotional response over his situation was a couple weeks ago when visiting with his little brother. They were talking about Tenison’s bucket list when he saw his brother become more distraught by the realization that the list was almost completed.

“I got up, walked over to him and just gave him a big old embrace,” he said. “He and I just both kind of had a really good cry about the whole thing.”

“Now I have one more item on my list that’s been checked off and I feel good moving forward,” Tenison said.

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