Christmas in Helmand with Prince Harry
With his recent engagement and forthcoming marriage to an American woman, Britain’s Prince Harry is again the hot topic of broad international conversation. Not surprising. People are fascinated with the Royals: They always have been.
The announcement of his impending nuptials as well as this season of the year have also taken me back 10 years to a wartime Christmas in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. It was there in 2007 that I had the honor of meeting and working for a time with then-Lt. Harry Windsor (aka Prince Henry of Wales, best known as Prince Harry).
It was a rather strange period in which the world believed Harry was home in the UK. In fact, he was in Helmand making his way to a remote forward operating base for the British. The period was also unique in that most Americans were then focused on the surge in Iraq even as the insurgency in Afghanistan was growing exponentially.
Both the Americans and our British counterparts in Helmand felt as if we were serving in a "forgotten war." And we were greatly under strength when compared to the huge military footprint in Iraq.
I had deployed from the capital of Helmand, Lashka Gah, to a FOB near enemy Taliban lines over the Christmas period.
The trip from Lashka Gah began Dec. 20 when I traveled with key leaders of my advisory command and several Afghan National Security leaders to a remote base in the south.
That location was one of the few places in Afghanistan, or even Iraq, with a conventional battlefield: Friendly forward lines facing Taliban forward lines, separated by only a few hundred meters of extremely dangerous "no man's land."
As soon as we arrived, I could hear British mortars on the FOB firing at enemy positions only about a kilometer away. They were supported by artillery being fired from a separate location at the enemy’s positions. We were quickly told to take cover in the event of an enemy missile or mortar attack, which happened frequently.
We soon learned the base was manned by a company of Ghurkas, which were Nepalese soldiers serving in a distinct unit within the British Army.
During the deployment to this tiny base, named FOB Delhi, our party of U.S. and Afghan leaders visited locations throughout the local district center of Garmsir.
As senior advisers to Afghan troops, we were helping prepare the Afghan leaders to move a large unit into the fight against the Taliban and assist the coalition. As part of our visit with local Afghan leaders, we were invited to an elaborate "Eid' meal. I knew about the Eid celebration at the end of Ramadan, but discovered this was actually the "Haj Eid.” The Haj Eid was a three-day celebration held around our Christmas holiday in which the Afghans take time off from work and invite guests to huge meals. This was no different. Hours spent socializing and feasting. Eating with your right hand and using Afghan bread to wrap pieces of chicken and goat.
The primary purpose of our visit and meal was to reassure the local Afghan leaders of the plan to move in Afghan Security Forces.
Two days before Christmas, our group moved up to a forward position facing the Taliban. This was critical in helping us see the ongoing operations and to better prepare the Afghan forces in our charge. We moved up, knowing we would stay on this position for the two days until Christmas, well aware that we would be under direct threat of snipers and periodic attacks. The soldiers, including the Ghurkas, had to remain vigilant for immediate attacks, with body armor on and weapons nearby.
Attacks allowed only seconds to prepare but usually ended quickly due to heavy coalition firepower. Combat is unforgiving and any mistakes would be a death sentence.
Prince Harry deployed to FOB Delhi as soon as he arrived in Helmand, and went straight up to our forward position when he arrived. This was for him to visit a few of the soldiers he would command.
I remember first seeing Harry in his full "battle rattle" of body armor and weapons. It was obvious he wanted to be viewed and treated not as a prince but like any other junior officer. Of course, the Ghurkahs wanted to take pictures with him. He seemed nice enough and more than willing, though making it clear that pictures could not be released until he returned home.
After seeing his soldiers and meeting the Ghurkahs, Harry returned to FOB Delhi. We spent the night on the position.
The following morning, Christmas Day, my little party returned to FOB Delhi, exhausted from the days on the outpost.
I again saw Harry at the operations headquarters, where his job was to call in air strikes, hitting Taliban positions attempting to attack the forward positions.
Harry immediately came out to greet our little American group and inquired about his men on the line. Following the practice of the British military, in which junior officers from lieutenant through major call each other by first name, UK and American officers called Harry by his first name throughout.
Throughout Christmas Day, Harry stayed busy with the mission while the Ghurkas held makeshift Christmas celebrations and games. The UK commanding general of Helmand came to visit, though even he had not been informed of Harry's presence. Harry was a well-guarded secret, and we Americans agreed we would not disclose the secret until it was made public. No Americans divulged the secret throughout Harry's time in Afghanistan, despite the money media would have paid.
In the days following Christmas, all of the officers ate our meals together and participated in various meetings.
Harry clearly did not expect or want special treatment, He worked hard to learn his job. I periodically saw him reading books about air support. Harry also liked to talk about various subjects, including strategy. He and I discussed the operational strategy in Helmand, and British coordination with U.S. forces.
Harry also liked to talk about his storied regiment, the Household Cavalry, and the fact that his company of the Blues and Royals had hundreds of years of tradition and lineage. He was exceedingly proud of that.
I served with Harry for that week before and after Christmas, and then again during combat operations in northern Helmand during February.
Harry’s service, particularly over Christmas 2007, earned our respect and gratitude.
He could have served in a safe location in Afghanistan and demanded VIP treatment. Instead, he chose the most dangerous spots in the most dangerous province. I thought Harry's service was in the tradition of the ancient ideal of "Nobless Oblige: "To those whom much has been given, much is expected.” This is in contrast to so many of the children of the modern "elite" families in the United States and in the UK showing little of that ethos.
I will never forget that Christmas of now-10 years ago and the brave young American and British soldiers there on the line. And I will never forget the service and great example of the young prince.