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Canada has about 2,500 troops stationed in Afghanistan, mostly in the volatile Kandahar province. Since the mission began in 2002, 88 Canadian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan. ((Canadian Press))

Military charges against Canadian Forces members have risen dramatically in the years since Canada sent troops to Afghanistan, a CBC investigation has found. In fact, the charges have risen by as much as 62 per cent over an eight-year period.

All military forces face discipline and morale issues resulting from soldiers serving in war zones — and from the latest numbers uncovered by the CBC, it seems Canada is no exception.

In 1998-99, just over 1,300 so-called summary charges were laid against Canadian Forces members, for everything from drunkenness to charges of a sexual nature and drug dealing. But that number rose sharply to 2,001 in 2002-03, the year Canada first sent troops to Afghanistan, and stood at 2,100 in 2006-07, the latest year in which stats are available.

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Absent-without-leave charges led the way in the Canadian military, rising from 394 in 1998-99 to a peak of 716 in 2003-04 and subsiding only slightly since, according to Judge Advocate General (JAG) numbers submitted in annual reports to the Defence Department and examined by the CBC.

From the reports, it is not clear whether this spike is the result of deployment-related problems or a more zealous application of the JAG rules — stemming from new leadership or other internal reasons, for example. The size of the Canadian military has remained relatively constant over the last 10 years, roughly 62,000 regular force members and 25,000 reserve force members, so the rise in charges is not directly tied to any big increase in personnel.

CBC News repeatedly asked the public affairs office at the Department of National Defence to supply someone for an interview to help explain the phenomenon. Instead, DND provided e-mail responses to specific questions on the AWOL figures and other numbers. Weeks later, an interview was declined.

Annual reports

Links were provided to JAG annual reports — with the earliest dating from 1998-99 — and these do shed some light on internal concerns about the increase in the number of charges.

For example, the 2003-04 annual report from JAG notes that the 40 per cent increase in summary trials from the previous year had levelled off. Summary trials, which are disciplinary actions dealt with by the unit's commanding officer or a delegate, are generally less serious than courts martial, which have remained fairly stable over the period. 

The sharp increase in summary trials, the JAG report said, "is consistent with the conclusion that [Canadian Forces] members who have been given disciplinary responsibilities are developing proficiency with the summary trial process and are becoming more confident in their ability to use it as a disciplinary tool."

The previous year's JAG report had noted an influx of new recruits and a willingness of commanding officers to turn to the disciplinary system for what may have been handled in a more informal way in another era.

But the JAG reports also show that at least some of the more serious charges are up as well. Courts martial for sexual assault, for example, increased from one incident in 2000-01 to 10 in 2006-07. There have also been charges for possessing and accessing child pornography, sexual exploitation, kidnapping, forcible confinement and hostage-taking, which is not explained in any detail.

'To maintain the Canadian Forces in a state of readiness, the military chain of command must be in a position to enforce internal discipline effectively and efficiently.' —JAG Annual Report 2006-07

The chief military judge posts final decisions online, but it appears that those dealing with sexual assault are excluded. The DND would not offer an explanation why that is the case.

The decisions outline a number of cases that have been dealt with, including one soldier who lit another soldier's bed on fire at a base after first pouring glue on it. Others referred to military personnel caught selling cocaine.

Intoxication and sexual assault

Over the eight-year period ended in 2006-07, disobedience charges have doubled, drunkenness charges almost tripled, and those relating to good order and discipline shot up to 1,011 in 2006-07 from 550 in 1998-99. Charges of theft are among the few that went down.

The e-mail response to questions about sexual charges in the military referred to 10 charges in 2006-07 at the summary trial stage, which involve "accessing pornography on a DND computer to engaging in [consensual] sexual activity in unauthorized circumstances," according to the department.

No mention was made of the details of 10 sexual assault charges in 2006-07 at the court martial stage. Fifty-two cases of sexual assault went to the most serious court martial stage between 2000-01 and 2006-07, as did 53 cases of drug trafficking.

Roughly 10 per cent of those charged by the military each year are officers. In its e-mail response, the department noted that there were 2,100 charges laid involving 1,660 summary cases (or individuals) in 2006-07 and that the number was within the five-year average. In 1998-99, there were 1,300 charges involving 1,053 cases, so the 2006-07 numbers represent a 52 per cent increase over the longer period.

In 2006-07, 54 per cent of all charges laid were under the category 'Conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline.'  —JAG Annual report

Drug and alcohol charges rose slightly in 2003-04, that year's report noted, but that figure masks an increase in the number of incidents that took place during overseas deployment. On deployed operations, 31 per cent of charges laid in 2003-04 were of a drug and alcohol nature, compared to 26 per cent the previous year — numbers the report said are "significantly higher than the overall average for the [Canadian Forces]."

Afghanistan

The military went into Afghanistan in February 2002, when a battle group from the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry was sent to Kandahar for six months.

From August 2003 to December 2005, Canadians were largely based in the capital Kabul, but that role changed in the summer of 2006 with the movement to the volatile southern province of Kandahar, where 2,500 Canadian soldiers are now located.

To date, 88 Canadian Forces members have been killed in Afghanistan since 2002.

In February, the Canadian Press reported that the number of former soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder tripled over a five-year period beginning in 2002, from 1,802 to 6,504. As well, 1,300 Forces members who served in Afghanistan were screened after deployment, with results showing that almost one-third had symptoms that suggested one or more mental health problems.

The rise in charges suggests the military is tightening up discipline as a result of operations in Afghanistan, but could also indicate the lengthy mission is taking its toll on morale, said Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel who served in the military for 34 years.

"The numbers alone are sufficient enough to create some kind of alarm," Drapeau told CBC News on Wednesday in Ottawa.

It is not known whether AWOL numbers and post-traumatic stress disorder are linked, but each category has increased at a similarly high rate.

Drapeau said many soldiers are on their second and third tours in Afghanistan.

"This brings about a certain level of fatigue, stress, and we know that post-traumatic stress disorder increases also simultaneously with this increase in discipline," he said.

In 1998-99, the number of absent without leave charges, 394, ebbed and rose a bit over the next two years, but then jumped to 684 in the year beginning April 2002, when the deployment to Afghanistan began.

The following year, AWOL charges climbed even higher — to a peak of 716 by March 31, 2004. Of those charged, 656 pleaded guilty, 53 not guilty, two charges were stayed and five were found guilty after a special finding. In 2004-05, it was 668. The number of AWOL cases fell to 617 by the end of March 2006.

The Defence Department said that to provide details of AWOL charges would require staff to look at over 200 pages of documents for each charge. So it is not known how long each person charged had been away from a unit or how serious the incident was. At least one soldier who faced a court martial in 2005 was away from his unit a number of times, including one time for more than 30 days.

What is clear is that only a small number of the AWOL cases in the Canadian military are sent to most serious stage, the court martial, which is similar to being tried in a civilian criminal court with counsel, witnesses and testimony. The punishments can be more severe than a summary charge and range from fines to reduction in rank and imprisonment.

The military, in its e-mail responses to CBC, said that of the 16 AWOL charges that went to the court martial stage in 2006-07, the absences ranged from missing a parade to nine days away from a unit. No other details were provided.

Punishment

Every reporting year, some of the charges are dropped, some members are found not guilty, but most are guilty and are fined (fines account for 60 per cent of the punishments). Others are cautioned, have their rank reduced, are confined to ship or barracks or are sent to military jail, among other punishments.

Summary trials by rank 2006-07
 Private, corporal, master corporal  1,449
 Sergeant to chief warrant officer  74
 Officer  137
  
 Percentage who pleaded or were found guilty  90.8

Overall, court martial numbers have remained fairly steady over the period examined by CBC. In 2000-01, for example, 63 cases reached the court martial stage, which can involve members charged for incidents such as flying recklessly or disobeying an order to submit to a vaccination, compared to 67 in 2006-07.

Desertion

In 2006-07, 16 AWOL cases went to court martial. That year, there was one charge of desertion dealt with by court martial. Desertion is based on the intent of the soldier not to return, and is the more serious charge, carrying a possible penalty of life in prison. A person who is AWOL is authorized to be absent from his place of duty, but fails to return.

According to the military's public affairs office, only two charges of desertion have been laid since 2000. In 2002, a desertion charge against a soldier was withdrawn by the prosecutor.

A second member charged with desertion four years later was found guilty and sentenced to 15 days imprisonment and fined $1,000 in 2006. No specific details were provided about the incidents. Online reports from the chief military judge gave no narrative of the events involved.

Since 1988, only nine charges of desertion have been laid against Canadian Forces members. If just desertion charges are considered, Canada appears to be fairing quite well compared to other militaries.

According to the U.S. army, about nine in every 1,000 soldiers deserted in fiscal year 2007 (which ended Sept. 30), compared to nearly seven per 1,000 a year earlier. Overall, 4,698 soldiers deserted, compared to 3,301 the previous year, of a combined force of just over one million.

There has been an 80 per cent increase in desertions since our American neighbours invaded Iraq in 2003.

As for the British army, another one of our allies in Afghanistan, the Telegraph newspaper reported in late 2007 that almost 1,000 soldiers were absent without leave in a total force of 196,000. The paper also reported that since the fighting in Iraq began in 2003 there have been more than 11,000 cases of absence without leave.

Negligent discharge of a weapon

Recent JAG summary trial reports available online don't make reference to individual bases or exact locations where the charges originated. However, earlier ones from the late 1990s and early 2000 did.

JAG's 2006-07 report does not break down what charges relate to Afghanistan, but it does refer to a concern about one trend emerging in what is called an operational setting, presumably Afghanistan, regarding the negligent discharge of a weapon. (Earlier this month, the Canadian military announced it was going ahead with the court martial of a soldier from Nova Scotia who is facing charges of manslaughter and negligence over the shooting death last year of a fellow soldier in their sleeping quarters in Afghanistan.)

"The statistics also show an increase in the number of summary trials held in an operational theatre for this offence during the 2006-07 period — 62 trials as compared to 28 in the 2005-06 reporting period.

"It is important to note that the percentage of the summary trials held for this offence in an operational setting has also been increasing — 4.4 per cent in 2004-05, 12.2 per cent in 2005-06 and 16.2 per cent in the current reporting period," according to the report.

In its e-mail response, the military notes that in Afghanistan in 2006-07, there were no court martial proceedings dealing with AWOL, but there were eight summary trials. No other details were provided, so there is no clear picture of how much discipline is being used against soldiers in that theatre.

But Drapeau criticized the military for failing to provide Canadians with more details on the charges.

"We are entitled to much more," he said. "Those are our sons and daughters serving in uniform."