RICHARD KAY details how the Army was the perfect fit for Prince Harry
Prince Harry’s battle… with himself: As friends say the Duke of Sussex misses his military roles and can’t believe his life has been ‘turned upside down’ by his move to America, RICHARD KAY details how the Army was the perfect fit for the young royal
Stretching his legs in the aisle on an internal flight across New Zealand, Prince Harry spotted a familiar face among his fellow passengers with an empty seat beside him and promptly sat down in it.
It was a few weeks since Kensington Palace had made the surprise announcement that after a decade of service – including two dangerous tours of war-torn Afghanistan – the Prince was leaving the Army.
He had just completed his last major military deployment, a four-week posting with the Australian Defence Force, and within a few days he would be hanging up his beret for the last time.
But the decision, he told his companion that day in May 2015, had been his.
‘I don’t see myself flying a desk,’ the figure recalled a then clean-shaven Harry saying. He had by that stage completed two five-year terms, retraining from an infantry platoon commander to become a highly skilled Apache helicopter co-pilot gunner, and it prompted his most revealing comment.
RICHARD KAY: Yesterday it was reported that Harry (pictured at Westminster Abbey, 2018) misses the Army, including the camaraderie that comes with a life in uniform
‘I am the only one of my intake – bar one who has gone down the staff officer route – who is still in,’ he said.
Why does all that matter now? Well, yesterday it was reported that the Prince misses the Army, the camaraderie that comes with a life in uniform and the bonds forged with fellow soldiers in times of war.
But perhaps more telling was the feeling expressed by a well-placed source that he would have been better protected from the turmoil he has faced in recent times had he remained in the Armed Forces.
Indeed, the Prince was said to have told friends that he ‘cannot believe’ what has happened to him and how his life has been ‘turned upside down’.
Pointedly he was also reported to have reflected ruefully about those honorary military roles – his ceremonial position of Captain General of the Royal Marines, the most treasured of all – he was forced to relinquish when he and Meghan quit as front-line working royals on March 31.
For Harry these were never mere adornments, they were a vital bridge to times past and a link in particular to that special covenant that exists between the Royal Family and the military.
RICHARD KAY: Ever since Harry (pictured with Meghan Markle, April 2020) left that sense of purpose and structure that the Army provided, something seems to have been missing
How intriguing, then, that this cri de coeur should come now, five weeks into his and Meghan’s new locked-down life in Los Angeles. And how poignant.
It is hard to escape the sense that he has somehow just woken up to what he has given up in the land of his birth.
Only last month the conservationist Dr Jane Goodall, who befriended the Prince after he interviewed her for Vogue magazine – for an edition which was guest-edited by the Duchess of Sussex – disclosed that Harry was finding life ‘challenging’ following his move to North America.
The wildlife expert said she had been in touch with Harry after he stepped back from royal duties to live first in Canada and then the U.S. with Meghan and baby Archie, who turned one this month.
The couple are both fans of the 86-year-old primatologist and invited her to their Frogmore Cottage home in Windsor last summer.
In her recent interview Dr Goodall said: ‘I don’t know how his career is going to map out, but, yes, I’ve been in touch – though I think he’s finding life a bit challenging right now.’
And now, according to the Daily Telegraph, comes the intervention of friends.
Quoting that well-placed source, the newspaper reports: ‘Harry has told friends he is really missing the Army as well as his military appointments. He misses the camaraderie of being in the forces.
‘He has been telling friends that he still can’t believe this has happened. He can’t believe his life has been turned upside down.
‘He was in a happy place when he was serving in the Army, then he met Meghan and since then life has been great. But I don’t think he foresaw things turning out quite as they did.’
The source says the Duke does not blame his wife for wanting to return to her home country, but adds: ‘There is just a sense he might have been better protected if he was still in the Army.’
RICHARD KAY: Harry (pictured in Afghanistan, 2008) was said to have told friends that he ‘cannot believe’ what has happened to him and how his life has been ‘turned upside down’
There is a lot to unpack here. First, it cannot be any coincidence that the story was published in a newspaper that Prince Harry is still prepared to cooperate with.
Last month, in a grandiose statement, he and his wife said they would no longer have anything to do with Britain’s most popular newspapers – including the Daily Mail. And the Prince is known to have befriended one of the Telegraph’s columnists after she interviewed him about his mental health three years ago.
It has to be said that at one level the comments demonstrate an extraordinary lack of self-awareness from the Prince. It was Harry, after all, who walked out on the royals, not the other way round.
But what about those sad reflections that suggest he hankers for those days in service? It is certainly the case that the Army delivered some of the happiest and most stable periods in the prince’s life.
Of all the unintended consequences of Harry’s decision to step back from royal life, the loss of his military connections was surely the most heartfelt.
One of his earliest memories is dashing round the garden at Highgrove in cut-down Parachute Regiment fatigues, complete with its famous red beret, and saluting to attention at the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace.
There is a memorable picture of an eight-year-old Harry with Princess Diana in Germany, where his mother was taking the salute from the Light Dragoons.
He is engrossed as he watches from the turret of a Scimitar armoured vehicle, his camouflaged face a beaming picture of pride.
From Eton – where he thrived in the esprit de corps of the cadet force, and then to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst – an Army career was always his destiny.
As a subaltern commissioned into the Blues And Royals, he found both his feet and a sense of purpose. What only emerged much later was that the Army also provided him with self-esteem and a way of coping with the profound sense of loss he felt over he was only 12.
He thrived as a soldier and loved the privilege of leading men. It also provided a welcome refuge from his other life as a member of the Royal Family.
In the Army there was no standing on ceremony. He could be plain Harry or Spike – his nickname from his civilian friends – and just ‘one of the lads’.
But make no mistake, his ‘squaddies’ respected him to a man. He made his name as an officer by standing up for outsiders.
When he learned that one of his guardsmen, who was gay, was being victimised, he quietly dealt with the offenders himself and later was much amused to learn that he was being described as ‘a gay icon’.
He adored the fact that his Army buddies, of whatever rank, treated him as ‘normal’. Indeed he never looked happier than on the parade ground, appreciating both the discipline and the pride. Even after he left, whenever he found himself in the company of soldiers he was always at ease.
Excursions such as his 2013 trek to the South Pole with a team from the military charity Walking With The Wounded, the ceremony when he handed out coveted green berets to tough young men who had completed the Marines’ gruelling commando course, and of course setting up the Invictus Games for wounded ex-service personnel – all of these gave him enormous pleasure and companionship.
RICHARD KAY: While Hollywood is home for Meghan and her mother – and ideal for her career and ambitions – Harry (pictured in Vancouver) is very far from family and friends.
Ever since he left that sense of purpose and structure that the Army provided, something seems to have been missing.
Of course he has found happiness with Meghan, but he also appears to be somehow less contented.
His friends will doubtless insist that this is all the fault of a mischievous Press and is the reason he decided to sever links with tabloid newspapers.
Had he remained in uniform, he would have been more insulated from the uproar of recent times. But how could he have done that?
Back on that plane he told his fellow traveller there was nowhere else for him to go in the Army.
He conceded he could have become an adjutant, but that he was not staff officer material. Of his generation of officers, he said, virtually all were pursuing lives in civvy street. His focus, he said, was on helping the traumatised and wounded.
He explained how during his stint with the Australian Army he had learned of new research into improving the quality of prosthetics for those with shattered limbs.
As he said himself, he would always be ‘hugely grateful’ for his ten years in the Army and the experiences that would ‘stay with me for the rest of my life’.
He had been out of the Army for more than a year when he first met Meghan and had he been still in, it is hard to see how their romance could have flourished.
All the same, there is something unsettling about watching the Harry of today compared with the Prince of only a year ago.
Photographs of him in Los Angeles with a bandana wrapped around his face – his Covid-19 protection – while distributing food packages but walking a few paces behind his wife could not be more of a contrast with Harry the immaculately turned-out soldier. Are they of a man who has perhaps lost something of his focus?
Life in Hollywood must surely be bewildering for him.
While it is home for Meghan and her mother – and ideal for her career and ambitions – Harry is very far from family and friends.
Of course, life for everyone is different right now and it can be no exception for Prince Harry who must be frustrated that he has had to put his charitable plans on hold. And neither as a soldier nor as a royal would he ever have had the experience of being at a loose end.
For Harry, as his anonymous friend put it, having his life ‘turned upside down’ is sad enough. But how much sadder it will be if his apparent bewilderment at having his life turned upside down should sow the seeds of resentment over what he has lost.
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