MoD urges compassion as desertion hits new record

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The Independent Online

Soldiers are going absent without leave or deserting the Army at a record rate, official figures revealed yesterday.

Soldiers are going absent without leave or deserting the Army at a record rate, official figures revealed yesterday.

Troops going home to patch up marriages or domestic crises, lack of job satisfaction and recruits fleeing bullying were suggested as among reasons for 1,998 cases of desertion or absence without leave last year. It equates to one soldier in every 48 failing to report for duty or absconding.

Four years ago, when the trend was reckoned to have reached the highest since the end of national service, the equivalent figure was one soldier going absent in every 75.

Cases ranged from soldiers returning just a few hours after going missing - the most common breach for which soldiers are disciplined by a commanding officer - to running away and avoiding detection for months. Each year about 150 service personnel face a court martial charged with going absent without leave or similar offences.

Recent cases heard by courts martial include a soldier who went home to try to save his marriage after serving in Germany and Northern Ireland, and a gunner who disappeared when his girlfriend miscarried. The Military Police special investigations branch is reportedly also investigating more than 30 complaints by soldiers of bullying, intimidation and brutality.

The scale of unauthorised absences, which is highest among junior ranks and in infantry regiments rather than specialist units, is despite concerted efforts to improve conditions in the Army, which spends £30,000 to train a soldier.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "Any organisation will have a certain problem with minor absences. I am not sure this is a major problem. It is up to commanding officers to decide whether someone can have compassionate leave. They are encouraged, wherever, possible, to be as compassionate as possible."

But Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative Party defence spokesman, accused ministers of creating the twin problems of absenteeism and soldiers leaving the Army by squeezing the defence budget and stretching the armed forces with too many commitments.

"The reality for most soldiers is the increasing level of commitments to places like Kosovo, Iraq, Northern Ireland and others, and the incredibly short time spent with their families," Mr Duncan Smith said.

A group of 200 soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment were sent last month to Sierra Leone at 24 hours' notice, weeks after uprooting their families in a move to Colchester, Essex, from Aldershot, Hampshire.

But some sociologists and commentators explain the problems by pointing to the wider phenomena of lower tolerance in society of the risks, restrictions and sacrifices of military life, and young people finding it difficult to adapt to a hierarchical, command-based organisation.

The Army is 105,000 strong, about 5,000 below its full complement. Although this shortfall is no longer increasing, significant numbers are still quitting the armed forces and net recruitment is increasing only at a rate of 15 a month.

Initiatives have included making initial fitness standards more flexible, introducing a bonus for personnel separated from their families for a long tour of duty, a recruitment drive among ethnic minorities and moves towards training women for frontline combat.