With Prince Harry Retiring, the Army Has Lost One of Its Best Young Leaders

20/06/2015 12:38 | Updated 20 June 2016
John Stillwell/PA Wire

Prince Harry retired yesterday after more than ten years service to the army. During that decade he served on the front line in Afghanistan twice, qualified as an Apache pilot, was a forward air controller and even found the time to organise the inaugural Invictus games in London. Alongside all of this, he managed to do the core job he was employed to do originally - command men - which he did excellently. I know this because I was one of those men, once.

I spent some weeks sat next to him in a tank in the summer of 2008, on the Prairies of Alberta in Canada. During that period, we conducted hard war training, often working in very tough conditions and going days without sleep, but, with the company of our driver, our small crew of three enjoyed many moments of hilarity and morale was, mostly, sky high throughout our training. There were notable points like the night our driver drove us into a ditch. For a split second I though the then-third in line to the throne, had come to some serious injury... he hadn't, although had banged his head hard. He got on with the job of recovering our vehicle and getting us back into the action almost immediately; me on the other hand was less honourable, moaning for at least an hour about the whole thing to the driver. I was told to "man up" by the Prince during this episode.

There was the time our vehicle broke down and the three of us had to sit and wait for about 10 hours to be repaired. During this period the prince spent the duration asking our driver and me about our lives, our upbringings and our families. We asked him questions about his too. He was very honest, very direct in his responses. We really got to know more of him during times like this.

Also, there was the morning the entire squadron came together to sing happy birthday to Lieutenant Wales, who was turning 26. I had been dispatched to the nearest WalMart the evening before to select a birthday cake - choosing a yellow Big Bird from the limited options available. He was delighted even though we couldn't get the candles to stay lit during the presentation. I wondered if this were special treatment but then remembered that two years before on Salisbury Plain, he had forked out personally for a load of fireworks for us to enjoy as it was bon fire night. That was special treatment for us, from the prince, so it could be forgiven if this indeed was the case.

And of course, the most important moment I will remember personally, the time the Prince stepped in and told a group of very unhappy soldiers to 'back the f**k off' and leave me alone. This was following on from an incident which had occurred the evening before during which I had got a little close to a soldier from another regiment whilst drinking in the bar. The morning Harry had to come to my rescue, word had got round among the other regiment about what had happened between me and one of their own, and a group of angry sergeants wanted my blood - because to them, I was obviously to blame. Harry caught wind of the situation and confronted the older non commissioned officers, and made, quite clear, that they would be for the high jump if they gave me another second's hassle over the issue - my sexuality.

I remember watching him put these much older, much more experienced soldiers firmly in their place and the group walked away, visibly, with their tails between their legs. He returned to me and said, unassumingly, "you won't hear from that lot again".

Some buddies of mine deployed the following year to Afghanistan with the Prince and in conversations I've had with those boys, I know he was - just like in training the previous year with me - at the forefront of all that occurred; and I also know that some serious stuff did occur.

The Army has yesterday lost from its day-to-day ranks one its best young leaders. And like all the good officers in the army - he's probably left before his time. The upside to this though is that the men and women of our army now have a very powerful, senior member of the Royal family acutely aware of the special commitment it takes to be part of that unique organisation.

And that is Prince Harry's legacy to the army. He joined us, he immersed himself in our community, he learned from us and then taught us, he led us and will always now stick up for us. Essentially, he got us - and we got him. He'll champion the army for the rest of his life.

The men and women of the army need a voice in today's climate; politicians often make decisions that deeply affect our armed forces with little thought of their actions. The keen interest this man now naturally has in our military will prove invaluable in the coming years. Soldiers don't often get somebody to look out for them like that.

All in all it was a great pleasure to serve with Prince Harry, even if it was just for a few months. He didn't just show up for fun, he did the job better than most. And that's something nobody will ever be able to take away from him.

Well played, Sir.

James Wharton is the author of Out in the Army: My Life as a Gay Soldier, published by Biteback, and the regular columnist for Winq magazine