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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 February 2008, 17:41 GMT
'As normal as I'm going to get'
By Peter Hunt
BBC News

Harry in Afghanistan
The prince has not been given preferential treatment
"All my wishes have come true. It's just really nice to be out here," Prince Harry said recently.

This wasn't the Party Prince, beloved of the tabloids, commenting on a trip to Ibiza. Rather this was the Soldier Prince speaking about serving his country, and his grandmother, in Afghanistan.

The fact he's been there should come as a surprise to most people. That's intentional. The BBC and other British media organisations agreed not to report his deployment in the interest of his safety and of those working with him.

This secrecy was born of the failure, last May, to send the third-in-line to the throne to Iraq. There was extensive coverage devoted to the rights and wrongs of such a move and, at the eleventh hour, in the glare of publicity, Harry didn't go because the threats were too real and the risks for him and his men were too great.

It's very nice to be a sort of a normal person for once. This is about as normal as I'm ever going to get
Prince Harry

Seven months later, just before Christmas 2007, Harry slipped out of the country. His destination was Helmand province in Afghanistan.

It's been his home since. He's swapped his family's palaces for camps carved out of the hostile desert. Lavatories are known as thunder boxes and at night, when the temperature drops, snakes are attracted by the warmth of the slumbering soldiers' bodies.

In the midst of such rudimentary living conditions, the prince appears to have thrived. His job has been to control an area of airspace in Helmand. It's the military equivalent of an air traffic controller, though as Harry himself joked, to prepare for the role he didn't spend a day at Heathrow.

His task has been to call up aircraft on bombing missions in support of ground forces. Another key role is preventing so-called "friendly" fire. He has to make sure there are no allied planes in the sky when artillery is being fired.

Machine gun

He hasn't performed all of these tasks hunched over a video screen, nicknamed Taleban TV, inside the relative safety of a base. Harry has been out on patrol and in the field. He's had a taste of active service close to the front line.

He's spent time with the Ghurkhas who were coming under attack on a daily basis. Indeed, on one occasion when Harry was present five members of a Taleban unit were spotted in "no-man's land" and were attacked - including by Harry using a heavy machine gun.

Away from such a one-off, the prince described the challenges of his normal task out on the ground.

"You've got jets flying all over the place and you're trying to control them, while trying to show a presence of force to get the enemy to go to cover and to keep your guys in one piece."

When he first arrived there was the novelty factor to overcome. The other soldiers were rubbing shoulders with a working prince. Harry's superiors say he's done well and has received no preferential treatment. He's been ribbed for chatting up a female Harrier pilot over the radio. They were discussing how good the snowlines in the mountains would be for skiing.

Excited and reflective

The media's self-imposed silence hasn't been a completely selfless act. In return for not rushing into print or onto the airwaves, we have been rewarded with access to Harry at regular intervals.

In December, before he left, Harry was excited and in a reflective mood.

He told me the Iraq debacle had left him frustrated and he had contemplated leaving the Army.

"I did feel very much like, well if I'm going to cause this much chaos to a lot of people then maybe I should just, well, bow out... at the same time I was very keen to make it happen or hope for the opportunity to arise and luckily it has."

Harry in Afghanistan
Prince Harry had wanted to go to Iraq but was thwarted

A month later, when a television camera caught up with him again, Harry was doing the soldiering he's always wanted to do. He hadn't had a shower for four days, or washed his clothes for a week. He wasn't missing anything from home - even booze, he insisted.

Prince Harry describes Afghanistan as "massively important for me. It could be a turning point".

The young man with no destiny to fulfil is realizing his childhood ambition. Last year, being a prince prevented him from going to Iraq. This year, he's "mucking in as one of the lads".

"It's very nice to be a sort of a normal person for once. This is about as normal as I'm ever going to get."

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