Tactical

Terminally ill Army vet to get final wish, relive his tank gunner days

Jay Tenison’s last ride started on Reddit, of all places.

“I’m dying from stage IV stomach cancer. My wish is to do tank gunnery one last time,” read the title of his October 2022 post. The former tanker, whose active duty enlistment took him from Germany to Ramadi, Iraq, and back to Fort Irwin, California, had straightforward reasoning.

“Before I depart this land of the living, I’d love to feel the thunder of doom inside an Abrams MBT,” he said. More than a year later, Tenison has outlived his initial prognosis and will fire his final gunnery Tuesday at Fort Moore, Georgia, he and service officials told Army Times.

Tenison’s nostalgia for “the thunder of doom” dates to his time in Germany with Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 37th Armor Regiment at the now-shuttered Ray Barracks near the city of Friedburg. He did one gunnery there before deploying to Iraq in 2006, during which time his battalion fought in Tal Afar and Ramadi. Decades later, after two degrees and a successful career as a professional engineer, the experience looms large in Tenison’s memory during his final days.

“It was certainly stressful, but it was a great occasion for just bonding with the rest of your crew,” the vet recounted, fondly remembering his team’s “collective and singular purpose … the four of you act together as one.”

The commander of the squadron that Tenison will shoot with next week understands that significance. Lt. Col. Courtney Dean, who leads 1st Squadron, 16th Cavalry, spoke about the unique bonds that tankers share, forged in the crucible of gunnery.

“Shooting gunnery is a special event for us,” Dean, whose father and brother are also armor officers, explained in a phone interview. “First time you squeeze that trigger, you feel that shot in your solar plexus and you don’t forget it.”

Both tankers lauded the cross-cultural bonds that their community shares, though in admittedly different terms.

“I brought our Dutch liaison officer out here about a year ago … and you can instantly tell when he walked in the tower … there’s so many commonalities,” the officer said. “Bringing mobile protected firepower to close with and destroy your enemy using maneuver, firepower and shock effects — that transcends across platforms and nations.”

Tenison described the experience “among other armor units [of] our allied friends around the world” as a “shared bond, a shared plight — working together closely inside of a steel death trap.”

But that steel death trap was where he learned how to live.

Tenison’s long road home

Tuesday marks the culmination of a journey that began in Arizona in 2004 for Tenison.

“I was driving home from work one night — I wasn’t exactly satisfied with my lot in life at the time — and I saw the recruiting station on the way home,” he recounted, claiming it was an “impulse decision” when he pulled a quick U-turn and went to join the Army.

The now-engineer had previously spoken with the recruiter at his high school about a potential aviation career, but a list of enlistment bonuses made him curious about the 19K occupational specialty: M1 Abrams crew member.

“’What’s a 19K tanker?’” Tenison recalled asking. “And oh my gosh, away we went.”

He joined with a plan: he would serve his four years, and then he would go to college. After graduating from basic and tank training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, the young Tenison immediately shipped overseas to Ray Barracks, Germany, as one of the final soldiers stationed at the venerable garrison where Elvis Presley served his time in the Army.

“I switched around from one platoon to another. Then they figured out that I was smart after one gunnery, and they stuck me behind a computer desk,” he said. Until it was time to go to Iraq.

Tenison didn’t talk much about his deployment during the so-called Anbar Awakening — except to describe his months in Ramadi as “a f—ing war zone.” According to a unit history, his company saw grinding combat against insurgents in the western part of Tal Afar before reassignment to Ramadi in late 2006.

After returning to Germany, Tenison’s battalion was inactivated and the young tanker was reassigned to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin. He worked in a support unit there before leaving the Army in April 2008.

“I knew I wanted to do something big, something awesome,” he said of his post-service plans. Tenison studied electrical engineering at an Arizona State University campus, completing both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree before entering the workforce. During his college years, he also served an additional five years in the Army Reserve as part of a specialized engineering design unit

Since hitting the workforce he’s focused on fuel cell engineering, as well as renewable energy design for his most recent employer, the HDR design firm. He described the group’s Phoenix office as “my home … my second family,” and an environment where he could manage his ADHD diagnosis (and wield its strengths) through a never-ending stream of fascinating projects. “It’s been a great place,” Tenison said, “before the cancer came in and said, ‘I have other plans for you.’”

Tenison said he first knew something was wrong in late 2021, when his occasional stomach pain “grew progressively worse” and affected his ability to eat. He was a patient at the Phoenix-area Veterans Affairs hospital — the epicenter of the 2014 waitlist scandal that rocked the administration.

It took two months for him to get a referral to a gastrointestinal specialist. Then it took nearly two more for him to get diagnostic scans after what he described as a botched scheduling process. After his doctor saw the results, Tenison recalled, the specialist urgently summoned him for another round of scans. The diagnosis, handed down in the spring of 2022, was clear: cancer.

Looking back, Tenison said he doesn’t blame the VA staff for the delays, though he said his mother might. “It’s not really any one person’s fault … they need more resources. They need better funding,” he said.

After a series of treatments that included surgery to remove a golf ball-sized tumor from his brain, Tenison received an ominous prognosis that fall. He had 12 to 18 months left to live, his oncologist said, according to his October 2022 Reddit post.

Tenison quickly set off to check off items on his bucket list. That same month, he attended a space simulation camp at NASA’s Huntsville, Alabama facility.

The final push

But arranging the tank gunnery proved a bit trickier. After a promising lead to shoot with a 1st Armored Division unit at Fort Bliss, Texas, Tenison fell through the cracks after a change of command (and its follow-on personnel changes) derailed the process.

Even as his illness continued to progress, the former tanker didn’t give up. He took to Reddit’s Army community yet again on Oct. 29, 2023, with a final call for help.

“3 to 6 months left to live. That’s what my oncologist told me in September. I initially thought, ‘My issues are manageable, I’m feeling pretty good right now,’” Tenison posted. “Yeah…No. Not even two weeks later, my stomach cancer kicked it up a notch…I used to weigh 205, now I’m down to 140.”

He was direct.

“I’m not looking for sympathy here, I’m looking for help,” he said.

And it soon came, via a network of current and former figures in the armor community.

The unit that Tenison will join next week, Dean’s 1-16 Cavalry, is part of Col. Ryan T. Kranc’s 316th Cavalry Brigade. The units are responsible for all post-entry functional training for tankers and cavalry scouts, including the Abrams master gunner course.

According to Dean, Tenison’s last ride will begin on Monday afternoon in the simulator, where he’ll “meet with one of our master gunners … to get the rust off.” Then Tuesday afternoon, the veteran will suit up and ride one of the squadron’s tanks to a gunnery battle position, where he’ll shoot a series of offensive and defensive engagements.

The former tanker expressed enthusiasm about the arrangement, describing himself as “over the moon.” But just shooting isn’t enough — Tenison said he’s most excited that the unit will be keeping score for him, as they would for any other gunnery.

While he’s at the west Georgia post, Tenison will also speak with the 316th Cavalry’s trainers and entry trainees assigned to the 194th Armor Brigade, which handles initial training for tankers and cavalry scouts. Maneuver Center of Excellence spokesperson Amanda Surmeier added that the veteran will be honored as a member of the Order of St. George, an award presented by the armor branch’s professional association.

Dean said he wants his soldiers to hear Tenison’s story of post-Army success after an honorable four-year term and understand that “what they do here matters.”

For instructors, Dean explained, it can be “hard to see the fruits of that labor on a day-to-day basis.” But Tenison’s journey is a testament to the place the mounted community can have in an old soldier’s heart, he argued. “Knowing that you … made such an impact that they want to come back here in the amount of time they have left on this Earth to shoot a gunnery one last time — that shows you how special it can be.”

Tenison, for his part, hopes he can impart a “little bit of career advice [and] a little bit of perspective on life.” He wants to show those who enter the Army with a single-enlistment plan — like his from 2004 — that they can and should “aim for the moon, and land somewhere in between.”

The former tanker said he’s “pretty accepting” of his illness at this point. But whatever his final days may bring, he’ll be trained up and ready to meet it with 120 mm sabot — the “thunder of doom.”


Davis Winkie covers the Army for Military Times. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill, and served five years in the Army Guard. His investigations earned the Society of Professional Journalists’ 2023 Sunshine Award and consecutive Military Reporters and Editors honors, among others. Davis was also a 2022 Livingston Awards finalist.

Read the full article here

Back to top button