To see Prince Harry this week at the Invictus games in Orlando has been to witness a man transformed.
Standing or sitting shoulder to shoulder with the athletes, all of who are former servicemen and women wounded in the course of duty, it as if Harry has finally sloughed off the skin of the defensive, prickly, overgrown adolescent so many of his friends and advisers (not to mention the royal press pack) have become accustomed to encountering, and in its place there stands a confident young man, in possession of an unshakeable sense of purpose.
The Games have marked an important staging post for the young royal, as he travels the road to what friends, associates and observers are describing as a newfound maturity.
This journey began eight years ago, when a despondent Harry was riding home on an army transport plane after serving a brief tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2008 (he was pulled out early after a magazine, unaware of a news blackout, carried the story of his deployment).
Harry was traveling home with three wounded British soldiers, all of whom were in induced comas. Take off was delayed and delayed and delayed.
Harry has confessed that he found himself becoming irritable as the departure time was pushed further and further back.
Just as night was beginning to fall, the reason for the delay became clear—the body of a dead Danish soldier was being loaded into the transport.
It was a dramatic and sobering moment for the young prince, who, despite his tragic childhood, had lived most of his life in a cocoon of inevitable privilege.
The prince often refers back to that desolate flight home. In an interview with the BBC this week to promote the Games he spoke about the memories, and of seeing a fellow soldier, “Wrapped up in plastic, in an induced coma, but still clutching a test tube full of shrapnel that had been removed from his head. I just spent a few minutes sitting with them. That was a real turning point in my life.”
In his interview, Harry showed great maturity. He spoke intelligently about a wide range of issues.
“I thought long and hard about getting a job,” he said. “I did 10 years in the army—best job in the world. I wanted to be valued in society in that sense… I don’t get any satisfaction from sitting at home on my arse—and that’s a body part by the way, not a swearword.”
He also kept calm when asked questions about his private life: “If or when I do find a girlfriend, I will do my utmost… to ensure that me and her can get to the point where we’re actually comfortable with each other before the massive invasion that is inevitably going to happen into her privacy,” he said.
Harry said he is still, “trying to fill an unbelievable pair of boots” left by the death of her mother in a Paris car crash in 1997, echoing comments he made in another interview last week. “All I want to do is make my mother incredibly proud,” he told People magazine, “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. When she died, there was a gaping hole, not just for us but also for a huge amount of people across the world.”
That’s not to say that Harry abandoned his fun-loving side. Indeed it was much evidence in a skit recorded with contributions from the Queen, Michelle Obama and the president to promote the games. It wasn’t necessarily to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying it showcased an easily-relatable to side of Harry, and it was fantastic PR for a very worthy cause.
Harry’s determination to do something meaningful for wounded soldiers was, at first, a noble but somewhat shapeless ideal.
He reached out to Walking With the Wounded, becoming a patron of the charity, but was unable to participate in a walk with wounded servicemen to the North Pole in 2011 due to his brother’s wedding to Kate Middleton. He had to pass on another expedition to scale Everest in May 2012 because of military commitments.
Harry was a bit lost, and the wheels came off in truly dramatic style following the publication of photos taken in a Las Vegas hotel room of the young Prince playing (and apparently losing) a game of strip billiards in the late summer of 2012, just days after he had been lauded for his stately bearing when closing the London Olympic games on behalf of his grandmother.
“It was probably a classic case of me being too much Army and not enough prince. It’s a simple case of that,” he said of the photos at the time, in a rare interview with the BBC conducted on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Harry remains, sources say, defiant about the incident, and continues to believe the photos should not have been published, as the papers knew he was off to Afghanistan on a second tour of duty and this was a ‘last blast’ with his mates.
Harry is of course quite correct that he did nothing wrong but get caught, but there is little doubt among his circle that in the end, the global humiliation of the photos was a wake-up call to Harry and a warning that his boozy party habits were in danger of coming to define his persona.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to him,” an acquaintance tells the Daily Beast.
The second tour of duty was undoubtedly way more important for Harry’s personal development than the first.
He was truly in the thick of the fighting, and recently disclosed that he suffers combat flashbacks from those days.
He said, “I described it to someone ages ago as one of those slide shows that go through your mind. If you’ve got a good imagination as well, everything that you see, especially if it’s something that is quite powerful, then that slide is in there. It’s always in there, and if you have dark moments in your life those slides will pop up.”
And when he was out there, he learned about the Warrior Games, the US event for wounded vets. He attended the Warrior Games in 2013, joining in a game of seated volleyball.
Seized with enthusiasm, he launched Invictus, hoping it would be a kind of global equivalent of the Warrior Games.
It was held in London in 2014 for the first time.
The event struggled to attract crowds, and was, even Harry concedes to friends, a wake-up call on the extent of what his position could achieve. Moving it to the USA, and making clear Harry was going to be on show at the Games, was a smart and selfless move on his part.
Going into the closing ceremony on Thursday night, the games in Orlando announced an attendance of nearly 56,000.
It’s been a long slog, but boy, has it been worth it.
In the moving closing ceremony on Thursday night, Harry looked close to tears as Sgt Elizabeth Marks handed her medal to him, asking him to give it to the British hospital in which she was treated after she collapsed with a respiratory infection in London before the 2014 games.
The Invictus Games are lucky to have Harry—but Harry is even luckier to have the Invictus Games.