Prince Harry's Secret (Mission) Is Out

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John Stillwell / PA

Britain's Prince Harry has been serving on the front line in Afghanistan with the British Army

It's not just the princes and princesses of fairy tales who long to fly their golden palaces for a taste of the real world. Henry Charles Albert David Windsor, better known as Prince Harry, the freckle-faced, ginger-haired, 23-year-old second son of Charles and Diana, third in line to the British throne, has long shown signs of impatience with the protocols and pomposity of royal life. He's been known to paint the town red and the air blue. He's cuddled kids with AIDS in Lesotho. And now he's taken keeping it real to a new level that's almost surreal: serving as a member of the Household Cavalry in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

Undeterred by the mounting death toll among British forces personnel — there have been 89 fatalities since Britain first deployed troops in the country in 2001 — Prince Harry, known by his military title Cornet Wales, has been secretly working in Afghanistan since December, coordinating air support for military operations on the ground. Yesterday his secret was revealed and his boss, General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the British army, was quick to praise him. "His conduct on operations in Afghanistan has been exemplary," said Dannatt. "He has been fully involved in operations and has run the same risks as everyone else in his battle group."

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown swiftly echoed Dannatt's words. "Prince Harry has been an exemplary solider and is serving with dedication in the finest traditions of our armed forces. The whole of Britain will be proud of the outstanding service he is giving. For the last 10 weeks he has joined the thousands of members of the British armed forces who have served with such distinction in difficult circumstances in Afghanistan since 2001. I want to thank Prince Harry and all of our service personnel for their contribution and service."

For a young man like Prince Harry, whose academic career was less than stellar, being called "exemplary" by two such distinguished figures could send a rush of blood to the head. Yet this exemplary soldier is now on the way home, withdrawn not only for his own safety but for the sake of the troops serving alongside him. The Prince's frontline deployment had been kept under wraps by British and international media outlets at the request of Britain's Ministry of Defence. Harry was due to deploy to Iraq last year, but his posting was canceled amid concerns that he would be a prime target for terror attacks. One U.S. Pentagon official told TIME he thought that, by organizing the news blackout, Britain was missing an opportunity to build some support for the war in Afghanistan across Europe. "When you are trying to build popular support, it is nice to know that your country's leaders are out there pulling their weight," he said.

Dannatt took a different view. "In deciding to deploy [the Prince] to Afghanistan, it was my judgment that with an understanding with the media not to broadcast his whereabouts, the risk in doing so was manageable," said the General. Dannatt and advisers on the ground now consider that risk is unacceptable. "I would never want to put someone else's life in danger when they have to sit next to a bullet magnet," said Harry in an interview recorded in Afghanistan and only released after his whereabouts were revealed.

It was always going to be hard to keep a lid on a story like this. As President Bill Clinton learned to his cost, the U.S. website The Drudge Report likes nothing better than a juicy secret. Following its scoop last week when the site published a photo of Democratic front-runner Barack Obama wearing Kenyan tribal robes, Drudge yesterday unveiled its "world exclusive" about "Harry the Hero" and his Afghanistan adventures. After the Drudge piece appeared, the Ministry of Defence confirmed its substance, setting the world's media on the hunt with the same dedication that the Prince has shown towards rooting out the enemies he nicknames "Terry Taliban."

As he heads back to Britain, the prince will be considering his future in the army. He admits he thought about resigning after he was denied the chance to fight in Iraq. He embarked on a career in the British army proclaiming his intention to be treated just like any other soldier — and demonstrating a noticeable flair for the vernacular of the common man. "There's no way I'm going to put myself through [the military academy] Sandhurst and then sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country," he said in a 2006 interview. He added: "I do enjoy running down a ditch full of mud, firing bullets. It's the way I am. I love it."

He says that when his granny — Queen Elizabeth II to most people — told him the good news about Afghanistan, he felt "a bit of excitement, a bit of 'phew, finally get the chance actually to do the soldiering I wanted to do from ever since I joined.'" Now that's he's had a taste of real soldiering, anything else may seem like a real disappointment.