COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) – The body was almost a skeleton when investigators found it, hidden in the woods for nearly four months and so decomposed that knife marks etched in its bones were the only way to tell the man had been stabbed.

Spc. Richard Davis had survived the war in Iraq, where he turned 25 during the march to Baghdad, only to be slain after celebrating his homecoming at a topless bar July 12 near Fort Benning.

With the discovery of his body earlier this month came a even more disturbing twist. The four men accused of turning on him with fists and a blade, then hiding his body, had served beside him in the same infantry unit in the blazing desert sands, facing Iraqi bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.

Now the Army is on the defensive, accused by Davis’ family of writing him off as AWOL instead of quickly investigating his disappearance.

Some people are also questioning the investigators’ conclusion that the killing was simply the result of a brawl gone bad, wondering if trauma from the battlefield could have led to bloodshed at home.

“All of the evidence says there was no bad blood” between the soldiers, said Mark Shelnutt, a defense attorney for Pfc. Douglas Woodcoff, one of the accused men. “They’ve all been to Iraq, they want to have a few drinks. … You can’t help but wonder. If this had happened a week before they deployed, would the result have been the same?”

Davis returned from the Middle East on July 12 from his second deployment since May 2002. His unit – 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division- had spent most of the past 14 months in the region training, fighting and waiting to go home.

Davis never called his parents to tell them he was back.

Police don’t believe the soldiers’ combat experiences were a factor in the killing. Only two slayings have been linked to the 16,500 3rd Infantry soldiers who deployed to Iraq from Fort Benning and Fort Stewart, near Savannah.

“There are murders committed every day, and most murders are committed by people who know you,” said Lt. Steve Cox of the Columbus Police Department. “We see best friends killing each other all the time.”

Davis’ father doesn’t buy that argument. He’s not sure why his son was slain but insists it wasn’t a simple, perhaps drunken, argument.

Lanny Davis didn’t find out his son was back in the United States until a soldier from Fort Benning called him in Missouri to ask if he was home yet.

He traveled to Fort Benning a month later to ask about his son. The Army had listed him as AWOL, absent without leave, though he’d left his toothbrush and new clothes in his barracks.

Fort Benning didn’t investigate Davis’ disappearance until the fall, after Lanny Davis sought help from his congressman, Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo.

Col. Steven Salazar, brigade commander for the 3rd Infantry at Fort Benning, said Thursday that the Army “followed all procedures necessary … and even took additional measures” to find out what happened to Davis. The Army reinstated Davis’ active-duty status so his parents could receive his death benefits.

But the slain soldier’s father remains angry.

“I’ve been screaming ever since that lieutenant colonel came and told me they found my son’s skeletal remains,” Lanny Davis said. “We don’t even have the chance to see my son’s face ever again.”

Investigators have yet to hear the story from Martinez, 23, who is awaiting extradition from California on murder charges.

A judge last week reduced the charges against Burgoyne of Middleburg, Fla., Navarrete of San Juan, Texas, and Woodcoff of San Antonio, Texas, all 24, from murder to a concealing a death, a felony, though District Attorney Gray Conger said he may still seek murder indictments.

Lanny Davis said brawls were what his son hoped to escape when he joined the Army after high school, where he had endured teasing, name-calling and fights because he was half-Filipino.

“He liked the military because he felt somewhat secure there,” Lanny Davis said.

Associated Press writers Jim Suhr in St. Louis and Louise Chu in Columbus contributed to this story.

AP-ES-11-16-03 1327EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.