The first blast of the M1A2 Abrams tank’s cannon sent a 120mm round exploding into a small, green target in the distance on a remote training range at the Army base.
Inside the tank’s turret, the shot sent shockwaves through Jay Tenison’s body — something the Iraq War veteran had not felt in nearly two decades. For just a few minutes on Tuesday, he said firing that tank transported him back to his youthful Army days and back to a time long before a terminal cancer diagnosis would dominate his life.
“I was not prepared for the first boom when I fired my first round, but that’s every bit of what I remembered from before, just as awesome — the thunder of doom,” Tenison, 39, said shortly after firing the tank’s gun at Fort Moore, the former Fort Benning, where Army officials worked for weeks to grant him his dying wish of shooting a tank one last time. “I was a little bit nervous going into it … I just wanted to make sure I did a good job engaging those targets and getting weapons fired on the right locations and killing targets.
“It felt wonderful … knowing I had a large amount of success.”
Tenison went nine-for-nine in hitting his targets, calling his return to an Abrams tank gunner position “like riding a bike.”
“Everything is still in the same position it was before,” he said. “It’s an awesome, very functional and capable machine.”
Tenison, who is from Phoenix, served as a tank crewman on active duty from 2004 to 2008, according to the Army. He last shot a tank in 2005, while stationed in Germany with 1st Armored Division’s 1st Brigade, hitting all but one target with a tank nicknamed Bulletproof. But, as his unit prepared for a deployment to Iraq, Tenison said his days in a tank were short-lived. In 2006, he deployed, spending months fighting in volatile parts of Iraq including Tal Afar and Ramadi. After returning to Germany, Tenison served his final year on active duty at Fort Irwin, Calif., as part of the National Training Center’s opposing force, the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
After leaving active duty in 2008 as a specialist, he spent five years in the Army Reserve as an engineer while earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, he said.
But it was his days in a tank that proved the most significant from his time in the Army. When he was diagnosed last year with terminal, Stage IV stomach cancer, nearly a year after first experiencing pain after eating, he sat down to consider what he wanted to do with the remaining months of his life.
“I realized I really wanted to do tank gunnery,” he said. “I just really wanted to shoot a tank again.”
He turned to a popular social media chatroom for soldiers and Army veterans on Reddit — asking the Army page in October 2022 if there was a way that anyone could make his dying wish come true.
“I have 12-18 months left to live, according to my oncologist. My weight is slowly dropping, my hair is slowly falling out, and my strength is leaving me,” Tenison wrote. “Before I depart this land of the living, I’d love to feel the thunder of doom inside an Abrams [tank]. Can anybody help this former tanker?”
The response was overwhelming. Hundreds of veterans and current service members chimed in with well wishes and advice on how to make it happen. Despite some solid leads, one year later, Tenison still did not have a date to shoot a tank. He posted again in October, telling the Army webpage that his doctors had given him about three to six months left, and he still wanted to shoot a tank more than anything.
“I’m not looking for sympathy here,” Tenison wrote. “I’m looking for help.”
And help came.
Officials at Fort Moore got word of Tenison’s request, and they did everything they could to make it happen, said Col. Ryan Kranc, who commands the Army post’s 316th Cavalry Brigade, which trains tankers.
Kranc, who watched Tenison shoot the tank on Tuesday, said they operated under orders to “make this happen no matter what,” though it had never been done previously.
“I think for a lot of us whose lives have been touched by cancer, this really spoke to us,” he said. “There was a lot of effort and outreach by a lot of different people. I think it was a fantastic team effort. We often call this the ultimate team sport, and I think what you saw today was a giant touchdown by the entire team.”
After getting to know Tenison on Monday, when the veteran arrived at Fort Moore to run through a tank simulator, Kranc said he was not surprised he was able to hit every target during live fire.
“He’s a quick learner and there’s a bit of muscle memory with it,” he said.
After the shoot, Kranc inducted Tenison into the Order of St. George, an honor for high achieving tankers and cavalry scouts. St. George has long been known as the patron saint of mounted warfare, he said.
Tenison said Tuesday would go down as one of his favorite memories. He said the experience helped him remember the things that he loved about being a tanker — the feel of the trigger and the blast and the smell of a spent round.
“That’s a smell I haven’t smelled in a long time,” he said holding one of the shells from a round that he had fired. “I love that smell.”
Tenison planned to include footage of the tank shoot in a video that he is making for his 6- and 8-year-old daughters to watch when they are older. He hopes they will be proud of his military service, he said.
“I’m going to tell them that this was every bit about me being a part of the military even though I left” years ago, he said. “I hope I can explain to them that this, today, was a huge thing, and it shows what can happen when a community supports itself.”
With the tank shoot crossed of his list, Tenison said he was down to two other items skydiving and piloting an ultralight airplane.
“This was something that has left me really awestruck and inspired,” he said. “I feel like I owe a huge debt of gratitude to everybody that made it happen.”