AN administrator with an army cadet force stole thousands of pounds as a gambling habit got out of control.

Former soldier Christopher Cook – who had served for 12 years and done three tours, including Afghanistan and Iraq – faced prison for his dishonesty.

But a judge spared the father-of-two custody because of his impeccable past, and ordered him to pay back the money and repay the community by doing unpaid work.

Cook, 33, was said by his lawyer to be “thoroughly and heartily ashamed” of what he did between December 2017 and May last year.

Working in the administration section for the Reserve Forces and Cadet Association on Teesside, his responsibilities included looking after money raised by nine attachment units, which paid for trips and the running of the force.

He had been in the job for 18 months before the thefts came to light because he had not been passing the cash to a Major to be banked.

Teesside Crown Court heard how Cook repeatedly made up excuses for not handing it over, saying things such as “my kids are ill” and “it’s locked up, and I can’t get to it”.

He was dismissed when £7,100 was discovered missing and he confessed to taking it.

When he was questioned by police last October, he said he had been given £10,000 from the army to help him adjust to civilian life, but had started gambling and “it got out of hand”, so he resorted to taking the cadet money.

In a statement from the force, a spokesman said many of the children are from disadvantaged backgrounds, and some can only pay 10p a week in subs – and it was effectively their money Cook was stealing.

The cash helps to pay for adventure training and cultural visits.

Nicci Horton, mitigating, said Cook got addicted to slot machines when he was stationed in Germany, and after leaving the army and returning to the UK, gambled online.

Miss Horton said he was spending all of his wages on betting, and stealing money to pay the household bills.

Cook, of Longleat Walk, Ingleby Barwick, near Stockton, admitted theft and was given an eight-month prison sentence, suspended for 18 months, with 140 hours’ unpaid work and £7,100 compensation.

Judge Simon Bourne-Arton, QC, told him: “Get yourself a job and pay back the money.”