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Cause of death a mystery as remains of Tampa airman are returned from Turkey

The body of Air Force Staff Sgt. Curtis John “CJ” Gardner, 29, will be flown to Tampa for a dignified transfer ceremony today before his remains are taken to a funeral home.
The body of Air Force Staff Sgt. Curtis John “CJ” Gardner, 29, will be flown to Tampa for a dignified transfer ceremony today before his remains are taken to a funeral home.
Published Apr. 18, 2017

TAMPA — An Air Force staff sergeant found dead in his room at a military base in Turkey is scheduled to be flown back to Tampa today while his relatives await word on how he died.

"The family is anxious to receive a full report," said Erin Gardner, sister of 29-year-old Curtis John "CJ" Gardner, found dead April 10 at Incirlik Air Base.

Gardner was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base with the 6th Security Forces Squadron for six years before he was transferred to the 39th Security Forces Squadron at Incirlik, where he was stationed for the past 15 months.

A post at the Incirlik website said the death is under investigation.

"We mourn the loss of Staff Sgt. Gardner, and express our deepest sympathies to his family and friends," Col. John Walker, 39th Air Base Wing commander, said in the post. "Tragedies like this are felt across the entire wing. The chaplain corps and mental health are available to help airmen who may be grieving."

Gardner was supposed to be reassigned to Ramstein Air Base in Germany last week. His wife planned to visit him there with their pet boxer, Booker.

Instead, Gardner's body will be flown to Tampa International Airport for a dignified transfer ceremony before his remains are taken to the Garden of Memories funeral home in Tampa.

"We're all so heartbroken and the grief is so raw, but it helps to talk about CJ," Erin Gardner said. "He was a magical individual with a heart of gold. Even as a young kid, he was something special."

When the going got rough, she said, her brother was the guy you wanted in your corner.

"You couldn't help but smile being in the room with him, even if you were in a really crappy mood," she said. "His positive spirit was infectious."

Gardner arrived at Incirlik shortly before opposition forces mounted a failed coup against Turkish President Recep Erdogan. Tension in Turkey made his tour of duty even more stressful than his previous deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, his sister said.

CJ Gardner was the youngest of five siblings, four of whom were adopted at birth, she said.

"There was no biological reason to be as close as we were, but we had this weird, amazing bond," she said. "CJ with his smile and his personality and everything about him is what really held that bond together."

Another bond in her brother's life was service to his country. Their father, Patrick Gardner, was an Air Force lieutenant colonel assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill when he retired in 2003.

In 2009, five years after graduating from Gaither High School in Tampa, CJ Gardner enlisted in the Air Force.

He had been thinking about becoming a dentist ,but one day he came home and told Clarissa — soon to be his wife — that he was enlisting.

"He came home and said he had to do this," Erin Gardner said. "He felt the call. He needed to help people."

To his colleagues in uniform, Gardner was known as "Radio," his sister said.

"He was always singing."

As children, he and his siblings formed what they called "the Gardner Group," singing at holiday events, fairs and other gatherings.

It was a hobby that would serve Gardner well during his deployments — first to Iraq in 2011, then to Afghanistan in 2013, and especially in Incirlik.

"We know they have been under an extreme amount of stress that few outside the military are aware of," Erin Gardner said.

Family could not stay with troops at Incirlik, then, after the aborted coup, the base was surrounded by angry Turks. Power was cut. There was no water, or air conditioning for 10 days. The base remained tense even afterward, more so with the U.S. missile strike April 7 on an air base in Syria and with the ongoing campaign against Islamic State.

Still, to his fellow airmen, Gardner remained a ray of sunshine, his sister said.

"He tried to turn every situation, especially the frustrating ones, into a song. There has been an outpouring of love and his friends tell me that even in the worst possible situations, CJ was always there to make you smile."

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.

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