The sign outside the Platinum Club, a low-slung strip bar in Columbus, Ga., promises hot girls and cold beer. To a rowdy group of soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Benning, nothing sounded better. One night last July, Pfc. Alberto Martinez and four of his buddies from the Third Infantry Division headed out for a night of long-awaited R&R. The men were just back from Iraq, where they'd taken part in some of the most intense fighting of the war.
But things started going badly not long after the men arrived at the bar. One of the soldiers, Spc. Richard Davis, insulted a dancer and got the whole group kicked out. Drunk and angry, the men turned on Davis in the parking lot. Two of the soldiers, Pvt. Jacob Burgoyne and Pfc. Mario Navarrete, began punching him. The men were still angry when they all got back into Martinez's car. After a few miles, Martinez apparently had had enough. He stopped the car and the men got out. Martinez then allegedly pulled out a knife and stabbed Davis more than 30 times, while the others stood by. "He just exploded," Navarrete told NEWSWEEK. "Things got out of hand because of the alcohol... and the aggressiveness."
Panicked, the men tried to cover the crime, court documents allege. They bought lighter fluid and burned Davis's body. They stole his dog tags and hid his charred remains in the woods. The secret may have stayed buried there if a soldier back at the base hadn't overheard the alleged conspirators talking and tipped off Army investigators. Now three of the men face murder charges in a Georgia court. All pleaded not guilty at their arraignment last month. They don't deny that they were there that night. Navarrete and Burgoyne told police they saw Martinez stab Davis; Martinez has thus far refused to speak to police. (Another soldier is charged with concealing a death.) Their attorneys offer up a controversial defense: that the U.S. Army is to blame.
Martinez's lawyer says he will claim his client suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder, and may not have known what he was doing. All will argue that the Army, after turning the men into killers, didn't do enough to turn them back into civilians.
In Iraq, the accused did hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. Burgoyne was a gunner on a Bradley fighting vehicle, and claimed he had killed more than 200 Iraqi fighters.
Soldiers returning from combat are at risk for psychological stress. So before they went back home, the men spent a few weeks in Kuwait to "decompress." There they filled out a questionnaire that looks for signs of mental problems. Once back in the United States, they underwent a mandatory group-counseling session with a chaplain. Navarrete complains it was too little, too late. "It was 'don't beat your wife' and stuff like that," he says. All the accused are single.
Burgoyne was diagnosed with PTSD before he left the Middle East. His medical records indicate "homicidal/ suicidal ideations." A week before Davis's murder, he took a drug overdose in an apparent attempt to kill himself. When he got back to Fort Benning, the Army hospitalized him for several hours to evaluate him, but then released him to his barracks late that night.
The Army refuses to comment on the Davis case, though a spokesman pointed to the vast majority of the 4,000-plus Third Brigade soldiers who are not accused of murder. Specialists say depression and anxiety are among the most common PTSD symptoms. Violence is rarer. For the lawyers, proving the men suffered mental distress may be the easy part. Convincing a jury that they didn't know right from wrong could be much harder. Three days after Davis's murder, the soldiers returned to the scene and moved Davis's body farther into the brush to better conceal it, according to police investigators. "Take this to the grave," Martinez had warned them the night of the murder, Navarrete recalls. Instead, the awful details will be recounted in court, where it may wind up every man for himself.