CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan -- Prince Harry, third in line to the British throne, began a four-month combat tour Friday in Afghanistan as a gunner on an Apache attack helicopter, fresh from a vacation that included strip billiards in a Las Vegas hotel.
It was the second tour in Afghanistan for Prince Harry, 27, who will start flying missions within 10 days in the country's restive Helmand Province, the British military said. In 2007-08, he served in Helmand as an air traffic controller.
Looking relaxed if slightly tired, Prince Harry gave a thumbs-up Friday after a long journey to Britain's Camp Bastion, a sprawling desert base near the southern Afghan town of Lashkar Gah.
Capt. Harry Wales, as he is known in the military, wore his combat uniform and joined his 100-strong unit -- the 662 Squadron, 3 Regiment Army Air Corps.
As part of the Apache's two-man crew, Prince Harry will be both a co-pilot and the gunner responsible for firing the Apache's aerial rockets, missiles and 30 mm machine gun.
Britain has around 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, mainly based in Helmand province, and has suffered 425 deaths since the start of operations there in 2001.
The prince's previous posting as a battlefield air traffic controller in Afghanistan in late 2007 and early 2008 lasted only 10 weeks. It was cut short after his deployment was made public.
Britain's defense ministry had asked the news media not to report information surrounding the prince's deployment, saying the publicity could put him and his colleagues in greater danger, but an Australian magazine unaware of the agreement broke the news.
With his typical humor, Prince Harry joked at the time about his nickname "the Bullet Magnet." His job was to direct attack helicopters and fighter jets to targets on the ground.
But with that time in Afghanistan, the prince became the first British royal family member to serve in a war zone since his uncle, Prince Andrew, flew as a helicopter pilot in the 1982 Falklands War with Argentina.
Next Saturday, the prince will celebrate his 28th birthday at Camp Bastion -- but he won't be able to raise a toast with one of his beloved cocktails. The desert compound, which is next door to the U.S. military's Camp Leatherneck base, is an alcohol-free zone.
Before leaving for Afghanistan, Prince Harry said farewell to his immediate family at Queen Elizabeth II's private estate in Scotland, Balmoral, and stopped to see his brother, Prince William, at his Kensington Palace home in London earlier this week.
St. James's Palace said Prince Charles and the queen had been briefed on the details of Prince Harry's deployment.
Britain's defense ministry decided to confirm Prince Harry's deployment this time after a threat assessment concluded that making the details public would not put him or his colleagues at any additional risk.
In an interview last March, Prince Harry insisted that he was eager to return to combat after training to fly Apache helicopters. "I've served my country. I enjoyed it because I was with my friends. And, you know, everyone has a part to play," he told CBS News.
"You can't train people and then not put them into the role they need to play. For me personally, as I said, I want to serve my country. I've done it once, and I'm still in the Army, [so] I feel as though I should get the opportunity to do it again," he said then.world
First Published September 8, 2012 4:00 AM