MoD reveals 1100 deserted since war began
Ian Bruce, The Herald, 29 May 2006
More than 1100 soldiers, the equivalent of two frontline infantry battalions, have deserted the Army since 2001 and are still missing, the Ministry of Defence has acknowledged.
Another 2725 went absent without leave last year, mainly for domestic crisis reasons, and later returned to their units to face punishment.
The figures were released to counter the claim by John McDonnell, the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, that the number absconding had trebled since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
An MoD spokeswoman said: "The numbers going Awol have remained fairly constant and actually fell back between 2004 and 2005 to the lowest level for four years.
"Soldiers often abscond temporarily for family reasons and there is no evidence to suggest that operational commitments to Iraq or anywhere else contribute significantly to the figures."
Mr McDonnell said later: "My understanding is that there are a lot more seeking to avoid service through different mechanisms. I think what the MoD says flies in the face of all the other evidence and the experience of soldiers on the ground."
The MP told parliament last Monday that the numbers had tripled since 2003 and that more soldiers were "questioning the morality and legality of the occupation of Iraq".
Figures for those still on the run are 86 from 2001, 118 from 2002, 134 from 2003, 229 from 2004, 377 from 2005, and 189 for this year so far, bearing out Mr McDonnell's claim.
The equivalent numbers going Awol are 2670 in 2001, 2970 in 2002, 2825 in 2003, 3050 in 2004 and 2725 in 2005.
A serving colonel told The Herald: "You have to remember we are talking about young soldiers, for the most part, in the 18-22 age-bracket. They receive a 'Dear John' letter from their wives or girlfriends and go under the wire to sort out the domestic bust-up.
"Most of them come back to face fines or other minor punishment and few are gone more than a matter of days. Some are brought back by the civilian police after trying to sort out domestic grief with their fists.
"I have to confess to being surprised at the number of actual deserters who remain out of the system. The figure of 1100 in five years is higher than I would have thought.
"While Iraq may be a factor, I would still lay money on domestic strife or financial problems being the main reason."
Justin Hugheston-Roberts, the solicitor who represented RAF Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith when he was sentenced to eight months for refusing to serve in Iraq, said: "We are seeing an increase in the number of people who have absented themselves from service who come to us for advice."
MPs are currently debating the Armed Forces Bill, one clause of which would make refusal to serve in overseas operations punishable by sentences ranging from two years to life imprisonment.