On February 29, 2008, Prince Harry was hastily withdrawn from Afghanistan.
After having spent ten weeks on the frontline, New Idea had broken the global media blackout on reporting the royal’s presence in the war-ravaged nation where he was serving as a forward air controller in Helmand province. He had to be immediately yanked from duty.
For a man whose military service had been so fundamental to his identity and sense of purpose in life, it was a devastating blow.
However, the flight home would prove to be life-changing.
“I was broken,” Harry told ABC America’s Robin Roberts in 2016.
“I find myself on a plane that’s delayed because a Danish soldier’s coffin was being put onto the plane.
“Then, while I’m sitting there, I look through the curtain in the front, and there’s three of our lads wrapped up in plastic, missing limbs … one of the guys clutching a little test tube or whatever it is of shrapnel that had been removed from his head and he was in a coma, clutching this thing. And I suddenly thought to myself, ‘people don’t get to see this’.
“I never in those 10 weeks, I never saw the injury part. I only heard about it.”
That flight would inspire Harry to set up what has perhaps been his greatest achievement to date — the Invictus Games.
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There is a certain, heart-rending symmetry at play here. Nearly 11-years to the day of the flight from Afghanistan, Harry flew back to the UK to close another chapter of his life.
This time, and to farewell his official ties to another venerable institution that likewise contributed so much to his identity and sense of purpose in life – the monarchy – and to mark the start of a new one.
Last week, the Duke of Sussex returned to the UK for the first time since he and wife Meghan Duchess of Sussex announced in January they were planning to step back from frontline royal duties.
In January, they took to Instagram and a bespoke website to reveal they intended to pursue the (outwardly conflicting) goals of working “to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen.”
On Thursday, Meghan joined him at the Endeavour Fund awards in London, the first time the duo had officially appeared in public together since then. On Monday the duo will join the Queen, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall along with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey which will be the Sussexes’ final ever official royal outing.
For Harry, this week is not just about saying goodbye to his working royal life so much as transitioning, to borrow one of the Sussexes’ phrases, to a whole new life, in a whole new country surrounded by a whole new set of people.
For any person, royal or not, such a dramatic overhaul would be a trying, tough time.
It would seem that things are no different if you happen to be an HRH (even one who will soon no longer be able to use that styling). One of Harry’s oldest friends has spoken to Vanity Fair’s Katie Nicholl, revealing the toll that this period is having on the sensitive royal, saying: “It’s an emotional time for him in many ways. I think in many ways it’s bittersweet. He’s always wanted to have a regular life and to get away from the spotlight, and that’s what he’s doing, but it basically means walking away from his family.
“Harry’s a loving loyal guy so that will be very hard for him.”
Harry’s life is one that has been indelibly marked by loss. In 1997 the world watched as the then 12-year-old Prince was made to walk behind his mother’s coffin through the streets of London. Looking back, that seems positively cruel and Dickensian.
The full extent of his suffering in the years and decades which followed that traumatic day was only revealed in 2017 when he spoke out about his mental health struggles, telling the Telegraph’s Bryony Gordon: “I have probably been very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions when all sorts of grief and sort of lies and misconceptions and everything are coming to you from every angle.”.
That was the same year that saw his life dramatically change when then girlfriend Meghan Markle quit her TV show, Suits, to move to London before the couple got engaged in November, 2017.
Today, while Harry, who wears his heart on his sleeve per royal insiders, has finally built the family he has always wanted, a cavalcade of reports have painted a picture of a man increasingly at odds with his family.
For more than a year now, there has been a steady drip of stories in the UK press about his allegedly testy relationship with his brother Prince William.
In late 2018, one of the Princes’ mutual friends explained part of the issue to Vanity Fair’s Nicholls: “Harry felt William wasn’t rolling out the red carpet for Meghan and told him so. They had a bit of a fall out which was only resolved when Charles stepped in and asked William to make an effort.”
Despite this, reports of a growing distance between the two men continued, a perception that was given a serious boost when it was announced the Sussexes had decided not to live in Kensington Palace, where they would be neighbours with the Cambridges, and had instead chosen to move into Frogmore Cottage on the Queen’s Windsor estate. Likewise in June 2019, Harry and Meghan announced they would be leaving the Royal Foundation and setting up their own charitable arm and office.
Harry himself seemingly confirmed the brotherly feud when he told ITV’s Tom Bradby in October last year after that the men were “on different paths.”
Elsewhere, in late 2018, The Sun reported that the Queen intervened after Harry, allegedly, in the run up to their wedding earlier in the year, had told staff: “What Meghan wants, Meghan gets.”
It also did not escape notice that in August of last year, Harry and Meghan eschewed spending time with the Queen at her holiday house in Scotland, as per family tradition, and instead travelled to Spain and the south of France.
Which brings us to 2020 which, barely two months in, has already proven to be the most tumultuous year for the royal family in a generation. What is clear is that no one has gotten what they wanted.
Harry and Meghan, as set out in their January statement, wanted to cobble together some new form of royal life that would allow them the freedom to earn money but while also retaining their royal imprimatur.
The Queen (and Prince Charles and Prince William reportedly) put the kybosh on that plan. They, in turn, wanted the Sussexes to stay on board as card-carrying, working HRHs given the incredible, global boost the couple’s truly awesome star power has lent the fusty 1,000-year-old institution.
When Harry and Meghan released a second statement in late February, one particular line was widely interpreted as a dig at the Princes’ cousins Princess Beatrice and Eugenie, reviving the claim that the younger York sister was left “hurt” when the Sussexes announced their pregnancy on her wedding day.
A friend of Zara Tindall, another royal cousin, told the Telegraph: “The overwhelming feeling is just one of sadness. She is incredibly fond of Harry and just feels so sad about what has happened. That’s how they all feel.”
Thus, here we are. A grandson, cousin, son, and brother who is preparing to set up a new life an entire ocean away and a family left to pick up the pieces after months of turmoil.
During the week, The Sun reported that last weekend Harry had a four-hour sit-down with Her Majesty, with the duo sharing lunch (salmon and salad in case you were wondering) and then afternoon tea.
Her message to him, reportedly, was that he would always be part of the family and welcome to return to the royal fold should he ever want to.
Taking this at face value (other journalists have since confirmed the story), this is a significant and very public step to beginning the healing process between Harry and the Windsors.
Harry has for years longed for, and spoken about, wanting to find a more “normal” life, away from the spotlight and the media who he views with such disdain.
“I am determined to have a relatively normal life, and if I am lucky enough to have children, they can have one too,” he told Newsweek in 2017.
The question that remains to be answered is, will this elusive “normal” life give Harry the happiness he has always craved?
Ken Wharfe, who was Diana, Princess of Wales’ bodyguard told Vanity Fair this week: “His mother used to say, ‘I wish I was normal’ and I would say, ‘you can do normal things but you will never be normal’. It’s the same for Harry.”
When midnight hits on March 31, Harry and Meghan will farewell their official royal status after barely 20-months of married life.
Here’s hoping when the clock ticks forward into April 1, that little boy who walked behind his mother’s coffin might finally, truly find peace.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.
On February 29, 2008, Prince Harry was hastily withdrawn from Afghanistan.