How Gulf war 'hero' became a jailed villain: The Army is facing fierce criticism for its 'Dark Age' treatment of soldiers caught smoking cannabis. Heather Mills reports

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The Independent Online
LAST YEAR Gary Roberts was hailed as a hero of the Gulf war. A medic, he was wounded with a two-and-a-half inch (6.35cm) piece of shrapnel in his leg but stayed in battle to help others. He did not seek treatment until the next day.

His six months in the Gulf were traumatic. He had tried in vain to save the life of a colleague crushed by an Army vehicle, and cleared Iraqi trenches 'full of dead people'.

Roberts, 22, from Stoke-on- Trent, became a minor celebrity when he rang the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad to reserve a victory suite for the Army. Now, after five years' service, he is one of five members of the 1st Battalion, the Staffordshire Regiment, serving a seven-month jail sentence after a court martial. At the end of it he will be dishonourably discharged and unemployed. His crime was to smoke cannabis.

Yesterday lawyers, civil rights groups and probation officers said the Army had perpetrated 'a grave injustice'. Jim Nichol, his solicitor, said: 'What has happened is outrageous. This man needed counselling for the traumas he had lived through, not a court martial.' In the unlikely event that he would have faced trial, psychiatric reports would have led to his acquittal, he said.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: 'One of the many lessons from Vietnam was that traumatised soldiers used cannabis to try and forget and relax. We stopped jailing people for smoking small amounts of cannabis 20 years ago. The attitude of the Army belongs to the Dark Ages.'

Yesterday, the Army defended its punishments. A spokeswoman at the Ministry of Defence said: 'The military do not tolerate any misuse of drugs of any kind and hand out punishments accordingly. Soldiers are aware of this when they join.' She said that counselling was available for personnel suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the Gulf war. But in a statement to his solicitor, Roberts, 22, said that in the Army it would be regarded as a 'weakness of character' to seek counselling.

He said that the months between the war and the time he was caught smoking cannabis was 'one of the most stressful periods of my life. I was confused - I had seen a lot of dead bodies. My nerves were shattered. I suffered shaking. I frequently lie awake thinking about what I have seen . . . I kept thinking it was an awful waste of life and what was it all for?'

His mother, Maureen Roberts, who during the war ran a helpline for Gulf personnel and then helped wounded soldiers on their return, said yesterday: 'Gary deserved to be punished for what he did but not like this.

'When he was in the war, he gave 105 per cent to the British Army. I too have been a very good friend to the Army and this is how they pay me back - by throwing Gary on the industrial slag-heap.'

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