THEY went to school together. They joined the army together. And then they carried their dead friend to his grave together. Now, their careers are in shreds.
In a tragic and moving illustration of the deep crisis facing Britain's armed services, a Scotland on Sunday investigation has found that four of the six soldiers who bore the coffin of a colleague shot dead in Iraq are either quitting in disgust or are on long-term sick leave and likely to quit.
Friends and family say the men, all from the Highlanders, 4th Batallion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, have been broken by a combination of army neglect, disillusion with the Iraq war and devastation at the death of their friend in January.
The revelations come amid growing fears that the wars being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan have triggered a wave of resignations among servicemen and women.
A damning report by the National Audit Office found that disillusionment has increased among servicemen and women to such an extent that 10,000 personnel are quitting the Forces each year.
Scotland on Sunday now understands that, in the wake of their recent tour of Iraq, the number of Highlanders who have formally applied to quit has risen to 162, roughly a quarter of their strength.
The group joined the Highlanders after growing up together in Aberdeen along with Lance Corporal Allan Douglas. On January 30 this year, Douglas was killed by a sniper's bullet in the Maysan province of Iraq, the 99th British casualty of the war.
Soon after carrying his coffin in Aberdeen, Duncan Forbes, 23, and Paul Wood, 21, handed in their resignations.
The two other men, Corporal Andrew Christie, 29, and Matthew Mallon, 20, are now suffering from stress-related conditions.
The soldiers' families have also told how:
• One of the men was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after having to dress Douglas's body for his funeral on February 15.
• The army spelled Douglas's name incorrectly and got his date of birth wrong in his obituary.
• Their time in Iraq was spent "driving around until they were shot at".
Brigadier Garry Barnett, a former Colonel of the Black Watch, said the soldiers' decision to quit highlighted the crisis facing the armed forces.
Liam Fox, the Tory defence spokesman, said: "The army is struggling to retain its men and the more our forces are stretched the harder that will become."
Last night, an army spokeswoman said: "People leave the army for different reasons and due to medical confidentiality we cannot comment on individual soldiers' circumstances."