More than 17,000 episodes of troops going Awol since 2003

Macho culture blamed for soldiers running away rather than asking for help

British soldiers have gone on the run from their posts on more than 17,000 occasions since the start of the Iraq war, The Independent can reveal.

As resources for the armed forces remain stretched to cope with Britain's commitments in Afghanistan, official figures from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) show that there were more than 2,000 cases of soldiers going absent without leave (awol) last year, with 17,470 incidents recorded since the Iraq invasion in 2003.

The internal Government statistics, released to The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act, show that 375 soldiers remained at large at the end of last year, although MoD sources insisted that the figure has since fallen. Army officials are battling hard to tackle the problem that has persisted throughout Britain's gruelling operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Domestic problems and stress have all been blamed for the awol figures. There is also a trend for soldiers to not return from holidays. But support groups and politicians also warned that the extent of Britain's overseas commitments was playing a part, with soldiers having to go on repeated tours closer together than in the past.

The number of awol cases each year has remained at more than 2,000 for the past decade. In response, the army is carrying out research on the problem to gain "a full understanding of the issues" behind it. "Anecdotal evidence suggests that most incidents are caused by soldiers' domestic circumstances, eg family problems, rather than any wish to avoid military service," an MoD spokesman said.

Julie McCarthy, chief executive of the Army Families Federation, said that while help was offered to soldiers considering going awol, a "macho culture" within the barracks quite often put off young recruits from seeking advice about their problems. "Young soldiers in particular can feel that they cannot open up and take the help on offer, so when they have problems at home, they take the option of just dropping everything and leaving," she said.

"Anecdotally, we do hear of more serious issues of mental health, with some soldiers feeling that it all gets too much for them. I don't know what effect the number of operations that Britain has taken part in has had, but it must be a factor." Liam Fox, shadow Defence Secretary, said: "These figures are very concerning. There is a possibility that the current overstretch and high tempo of operations have contributed to this high level of awol soldiers."

Joe Glenton, 27, is facing up to two years in prison after last month admitting going awol. His solicitor said that Mr Glenton, who disappeared between June 2007 and June 2009, was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and had refused to fight in Afghanistan as he saw it as an illegal war. "Joe is delighted that he is no longer facing the higher charge of desertion," said his solicitor, John Tipple. "Soldiers are told to stand up for themselves when they are told to do something they believe to be wrong. That is just what Joe did and it was a brave thing to do." Mr Glenton is due to be sentenced on 5 March.

Two other soldiers picked up by police last year said they went awol after being bullied. Privates Andrew Jones and Andre Treble, both 22 when they walked out of Buckley Barracks in Wiltshire, said they had been attacked by fellow soldiers.

Local police forces are usually contacted by army officers to catch missing soldiers once they have decided to pursue an absconder, according to the MoD. Decisions to prosecute soldiers are taken on a case by case basis.