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Page last updated at 12:45 GMT, Tuesday, 27 March 2007 13:45 UK

Runaway Soldiers

Soldier in Iraq
AWOL soldiers claim the army ignores their problems

Soldiers are going absent without leave (AWOL) because the army cannot cope with those suffering combat stress, the BBC has learned.

A Panorama investigation has discovered that frontline trauma is one of the main reasons soldiers turn deserter.

Academic Steven Walker, from the University of Essex, says army support services are over-stretched and a culture change is needed in army attitudes to soldiers with mental health problems.

One soldier who is permanently on the run told the BBC anything was preferable to serving in Iraq.

According to some analysts, there are an estimated 2,700 incidents a year of soldiers going AWOL either temporarily or permanently.

An estimated 1,100 are currently on the run, some since 2001.

The Ministry of Defence said this figure was now about 2,300 a year, compared with 2,700 in 2004.

Mr Walker, who has interviewed ex-soldiers, said soldiers left traumatised by service in Iraq were not deterred from going AWOL.

"The nature of the conflict is stressful - soldiers work inside civilian populations where they don't really know who the enemy is.

"The young soldiers I interviewed had traumatic experiences in Iraq and developed emotional and mental health problems that weren't acknowledged or dealt with properly and that prompted them to go AWOL," he said.

As bad as my life is constantly on the run, I wouldn't be able to accept going back to Iraq or Afganistan
AWOL soldier

One of the 1,100 soldiers on the run tracked down by Panorama said the change in his state of mind alarmed his friends on his return from Iraq.

"My friends were like you're in a mess man," he told the BBC. He admits that avoiding the authorities and military police is making him paranoid, but added, "As bad as my life is constantly on the run, I wouldn't be able to accept going back to Iraq or Afganistan."

Richie Livingston, from Glasgow, went AWOL after a childhood friend and fellow soldier was killed in Iraq.

He tried a drugs overdose and was later found carving his friend's name into his own chest with a scalpel.

Mental health

Richie told an army psychiatrist who said he was fit to return to duty.

He then went AWOL again.

"I felt they did not pay attention to what was going on and they thought I was basically putting it on," he said.

But not everyone is convinced that mental health issues drive soldiers to go AWOL.

'Immature soldiers'

Amayas Godfrey, former captain and intelligence officer with two tours of duty in Iraq, had first hand experience of runaway soldiers.

"In my experience why the majority of soldiers went absent without leave was down to the fact that they were young, inexperienced and sometimes immature and they didn't know how to face their problems.

"They didn't know they could go to their commander and say 'I'm really worried about my wife or the situation with my parents.'

"Usually they react badly and say 'It is all too much and I'm not going to come back.'"

Speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, Col John Donnelly said the number of soldiers going AWOL was reducing and most of the cases involved family issues.

He rejected suggestions that frontline trauma caused soldiers to desert: "There's nothing we have that will suggest it is a particularly big issue."

Col Donnelly added: "We make great demands on our people but we also put in place a very strong welfare network to support the soldiers who need to take advantage of it."

The Ministry of Defence issued the following statement on Monday 26 March before transmission of Panorama but while the story was running on BBC News.

"It has been inaccurately reported in the media that mental health problems caused by operations in Iraq have had a detrimental impact on absent without leave (AWOL) rates within the British Army.

"In fact, operations in Iraq have had no discernable impact on the overall AWOL rate. The number of new AWOL cases has declined over the past two years. In 2006, the military had its lowest number of AWOL cases for seven years.

"There are a number of reasons why soldiers go AWOL, but current evidence suggests that most incidents are caused by soldiers' domestic circumstances, such as difficulties with families or partners. Confidential advice is available to all soldiers from the Army Confidential Support Line on 0800 731 4880.

"The Army has a comprehensive welfare structure in place that provides practical and emotional assistance for soldiers and their dependants. This includes direct access to mental health services, including 15 military Departments of Community Mental Health, across the UK and overseas.

"Some individuals abscond on multiple occasions. As a result, the total number of AWOL cases is higher than the number of individuals who go AWOL."

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