Columbia national guardsman recalls a humble Prince Harry

Britain's Prince Harry sits atop a military vehicle in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan, on Feb. 18.
Britain's Prince Harry sits atop a military vehicle in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan, on Feb. 18.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Prince Harry might be third in line to the British throne, but to Lt. Col. Bill Connor, a Columbia lawyer, the royal heir was just another second lieutenant.

And that was fine with the prince, said Connor, in Afghanistan with the S.C. National Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team.

"I think he liked being around us and being treated like one of the junior officers," Connor said. "He called me Bill, and I called him Harry."

Prince Harry arrived in Afghanistan in mid-December, serving with a British Army unit in Helmand Province.

S.C. National Guard soldiers in Helmand first met the British royal around Christmas.

Harry, a battlefield air controller, called in airstrikes by coalition fighter-bombers to support the S.C. soldiers when they were on patrols hunting Taliban insurgents.

Connor described the unidentified base where the S.C. soldiers and Harry were located as remote with few amenities. "He sucked it up and we all smelled bad," he said.

Connor's wife, Susan, an Orangeburg doctor, said her husband didn't tell her of his brush with royalty until a phone call Friday morning.

"It came as quite a shock," Susan Connor said. "I said, 'Why didn't you tell me?'

"He said, 'Susan, we were sworn to secrecy.'"

News of Harry's deployment to Afghanistan was embargoed under an agreement between the British defense ministry and major news organizations in that country.

British military leaders wanted to keep Harry's whereabouts under wraps to reduce the risk to the prince and his unit.

The embargo was broken after an Australian magazine and a German newspaper published stories saying the prince was in Afghanistan. The story also was posted on the Drudge Report, a U.S. Web site.

Although they were not legally bound, the S.C. soldiers honored the news blackout, Connor said.

"Each knew he could have made much money with a tabloid yet didn't spill the beans," Connor said. "The Brit soldiers were under threat of court martial to stay quiet, but our guys were on their own honor."

Connor, who is chief of police-mentoring teams in Helmand, said he first met Harry on Christmas Eve, shortly after the prince's unit arrived in Afghanistan.

"This is an area that averages three, four firefights a day, so Harry was under as much threat as the rest of us," Connor said. "Helmand is the most dangerous province in the country. This is the heartland of the Taliban, the breadbasket of the poppy trade."

Trained as a tank commander, Prince Harry switched jobs after plans to send him to Iraq were scrapped because of concerns that insurgents there would target him or his unit. He became an air controller so he could deploy to Afghanistan.

Connor's teams, which include about a half-dozen S.C. troops each, entered villages to hunt down insurgent forces, relying on Harry to coordinate close-air support from coalition fighter-bomber jets.

Connor said he last talked to the prince a couple of days ago, before the story of his deployment became public.

Connor and his troops had just returned from 1 1/2-week-long operation in the field. Harry and his unit had stayed behind at their base.

"He was envious of us," Connor said. "He seemed to have a very aggressive posture."

The British defense ministry said Friday that Harry -- his cover blown -- was being immediately withdrawn from Afghanistan. News reports indicated the prince would return home.