Drug-taking in the British Army has reached record levels, with the numbers of soldiers testing positive for class A drugs such as cocaine and ecstasy rising by nearly 50 per cent in the past five years.
Opposition MPs are calling on ministers to take urgent action by looking at the possible factors behind the rise, such as battle-related stress and depression. Overall, around 1,000 soldiers tested positive for illegal drugs last year.
The figures illustrate the increasing pressure on Britain's armed forces, as depressed and combat-stressed soldiers are sent back to Iraq because the army is overstretched. Some doctors believe that active duty can help in their recovery and rebuild their self-esteem.
The latest figures show that positive tests among Army personnel for drugs such as cocaine, heroin and ecstasy was 520 in 2005 compared with 350 the year before. Over the past 10 years, the number of recruits caught with class A drugs in their bodies has risen 15-fold.
The MoD insists the Army has a "robust" drug policy based on prevention, detection and disciplinary action. The Army tests 85 per cent of the force every year for all illegal drugs.
However, Nick Harvey, Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, said an urgent investigation was needed. "Substance abuse not only damages individual health, but impairs morale and fighting effectiveness."
Troops now returning to Iraq come from several regiments which were at the centre of some of the fiercest battles against insurgents and al-Qa'ida units - the Black Watch, the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment (PWRR) and units in the "Desert Rats", the 7th Armoured Brigade.
David Ironside, a former soldier with the Black Watch, alleges that he was sent back to Iraq, despite being medically down-graded and put on anti-depressants, because his regiment was short of manpower.
In an interview for a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary on Iraq screened tomorrow, Mr Ironside says an Army doctor knew he was on anti-depressants, but told him to "get on with it ... I just had to get on with it, I was doing my job."
Mr Ironside, from Methil, in Fife, indicated that other Black Watch soldiers were also suffering from mental problems.
The men being sent back to Iraq could include Colour Sgt Chris Broome, the highly decorated drill instructor fined £1,000 10 days ago after he admitted abusing Army recruits. He was given the unexpectedly light punishment after a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Independent on Sunday has learnt that his regiment, the PWRR, is being sent back to Iraq, even though a number of soldiers are being treated by Army psychiatrists.
Military psychologists defend the practice of returning troops with mental problems to active duty. They warn, however, that every case must be closely monitored for signs of a relapse.
Christopher Hill, the lawyer for Col Sgt Broome, said his client was keen to return to active duty, but a psychiatrist is still assessing his request. "He's Army, through and through," he said.
An MoD spokeswoman said no soldier would be deployed "unless they were judged to be medically fit".
DRUGS IN THE ARMY
1,020 the number of army personnel who tested positive for drugs last year
10 army staff including soldiers were found every week with class A drugs in their body last year
19 per cent of Iraq war veterans have mental health problemsReuse content