COLCHESTER soldiers could be discharged from the Army after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in the Forces’ biggest reported case of doping.

Some 18 soldiers, including two sergeant majors, from 7 Parachute Royal Horse Artillery, failed a compulsory test after using a sports supplement containing the stimulant ephedrine.

It is claimed the soldiers, who have been suspended, did not knowingly take the substance, which is an ingredient in bodybuilding product ‘fat stripper’.

According to the Army’s zero-tolerance drugs policy, the soldiers, based at Colchester Garrison, could be discharged but military chiefs are willing to take their mitigation into account.

Col Richard Kemp, a former Colchester Grammar School pupil, who commanded British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, said: “In the Army, people have access to very devastating weapons and with the press of a trigger or button, they can kill a lot of people.

“The Army trains soldiers and disciplines them in such a way that it is absolutely essential that soldiers do not render themselves unsuitable for duty.

“In exactly the same way soldiers should not be drunk on duty, they should not be under the influence of drugs.”

He added: “There is a strong culture of physical fitness in the Army, and there has to be.

“When a soldier is serving, they are carrying extremely heavy weights across difficult terrain for a long time and they have got to be in good physical shape.

“It is an extremely important part of their lives and in some ways, it is admirable that many soldiers will go above and beyond to get themselves in very good physical shape.

“And taking this kind of substance is part of that fitness culture in the same way it is with civilian fitness fanatics.”

Col Kemp also said while he acknowledged the drug was not illegal, the Army’s zero tolerance policy towards soldiers using drugs is essential.

The group were among 400 members of 7 Para RHA tested at Merville Barracks at the end of August, after the regiment’s summer holidays.

Urine samples were examined for recreational substances such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis and other controlled substances.

A Colchester Garrison spokesman said: “The Armed Forces have a zero-tolerance approach to inappropriate behaviour, including substance misuse.

“Where an individual is found, through compulsory drug testing or other investigation, to have fallen short of the Services’ high standards, they will be dealt with through the military discipline process.”

According to Ministry of Defence guidelines, any serviceman or woman found to have taken banned drugs can expect to be discharged.

However, in exceptional circumstances, a commanding officer may choose a more lenient punishment.