When you’re a royal, you’re absolutely in a place of power and privilege. However, that doesn’t stop you from being at the beck and call of aides. Indeed, assistants can potentially rush you away from a situation at any time – even if you’re in the middle of a conversation. But while visiting Australia for the Invictus Games, Prince Harry refused to engage with his aides when they tried to get his attention – and he had quite the riposte, too.
In October 2018 Harry and his new wife Meghan Markle embarked on a tour of Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and the Kingdom of Tonga. But the trip wasn’t a holiday; instead, it would involve a lot of diplomatic and charitable work. According to a statement released by Kensington Palace, the royals would be engaging in “youth leadership and environmental and conservation efforts.”
And while in Australia, Harry would also focus on a project near and dear to his heart: the Invictus Games. Harry started the sporting contest in 2014 after his stint in the British Army, and the idea behind the games is to allow wounded and disabled armed servicemen and women to demonstrate their abilities in adapted sports.
The Invictus Games Foundation isn’t the only charitable effort Harry has engaged with, though. He’s put a lot of work into mental health services as well, especially since he himself suffered from mental health issues after the death of his mother Diana. In May 2016, for instance, the prince helped spearhead a campaign called Heads Together – the aim of which is to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health problems.
Of course, these two issues Harry seeks to tackle may coincide, as the Invictus Games Foundation seeks to help service personnel who have mental health concerns as well as – or instead of – physical ones. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is unfortunately very common in soldiers who have returned from war; in some cases, it can even lead to suicide.
And while in Australia, Harry participated in an event alongside sportspeople due to participate in the Invictus Games; he and the group climbed up the Sydney Harbour Bridge to raise an Invictus Games flag there. While on the way, moreover, Harry got talking to one of the participants: 41-year-old Gwen Cherne.
Cherne is the widow of Sergeant Peter Cafe, who took his own life in February 2017 after suffering from PTSD. Now, she campaigns across Sydney to raise awareness of the condition. She is also an adviser for the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs, an Invictus Games ambassador and a mother of three.
And as it happens, Harry began talking to Cherne about her family and her late husband. “Harry said something like, ‘The children must remind you of him, or live on in him.’ And I said [that] my son is so much like him,” Cherne told People in October 2018. “It was comfortable and thoughtful… He understood what I meant. When you understand loss, I think it’s obvious.”
The pair ultimately conversed for several minutes, talking about how Cherne’s children were coping with the loss of their father. “He did ask me if I was getting the support I need from the Defense and ex-servicemen and veteran community,” Cherne reported to People. Then, the two were suddenly interrupted.
Harry’s royal aides were present, and they wanted him to wrap the encounter up and move on. However, Harry wasn’t having it. And Cherne later told People what the Duke of Sussex did. “He stopped and said, ‘I’m in a middle of a conversation, and I’m not going to leave this,’” she explained to the magazine.
Cherne was full of praise for Harry, too – not only for listening to her, but also for genuinely caring. “The fact that he and Meghan are shining their light on the Invictus Games, highlighting for so many people the service and sacrifices the serving members and their families – and highlighting the families – gives people hope,” she told People.
Cherne also explained to the magazine that it was always hard to talk about suicide. “We were talking about my story and mental health and how difficult it is still, in our society, to talk about grief and loss and suicide,” she said. “And how important things like the Invictus Games are to shedding light on [loss], and allowing people to start to have these conversations that are great to have.”
“Heaven forbid we actually talk about suicide and the real causes of it, and that it is more complicated than just one issue on one day,” Cherne added. Then, later in October 2018, she would talk to another media outlet, News.com.au, about her husband’s suicide and her encounter with Harry on the bridge.
“It was like having a conversation with an old mate,” Cherne told the website. “I thought before we went up that I might get a hello, but a few sentences in, it was clear [that] we were going to have a real conversation. He kept talking to me until we were done.” Harry had even given her a hug while they had talked.
“[Harry] wanted to understand the context of my experience. For someone who is so busy and meeting so many people, it was incredible. Everything else fell away, and he engaged with me,” Cherne went on. “All while hanging out on the top of a bridge overlooking Sydney. It was an incredible place to feel completely at ease, having a very profound conversation with a pretty humbling individual.”
Cherne also detailed to the outlet her struggle with her husband’s PTSD. “He was one of our elite soldiers in Australia. But it was never enough. When he failed, he felt shame, and he held on to it,” she said. And although Sergeant Cafe eventually underwent therapy, the problems persisted. Cherne continued, “I could stand by [my husband and] I could go with him, but it didn’t work. It had to come from him, and he had to want to do the work. I was there – I was always there – but he couldn’t hear that.”
Then, after Sergeant Cafe’s death, it was only Cherne’s children that had got her through the horrible experience of grief. “I honestly wouldn’t have gotten out of bed again if it wasn’t for my kids,” she told News.com.au. “They are my reason for living. Making sure they know they are loved every single day is my priority. There is nothing that drives me harder.”
Being a part of the Invictus Games also helped Cherne along, it seemed. “I’ve been to absolute hell and back in the past couple of years with my husband’s mental health issues, trying to protect my family while helping him – and then his death,” she said. “Standing up every day and showing that Invictus spirit is important. I keep telling the athletes that they’ve been my inspiration to get out of bed many a day and keep going.”
But Cherne believed most of all, she said, in talking about mental health issues. “In telling my story, I’m helping people leave their mental jails and realize they’re not alone by connecting with someone,” she explained. “It’s showing [that] there’s hope; there’s a reason to keep going [and] to stand up and talk about these things.”
And Harry has shown for a while that he’s willing to deal with mental health concerns. Not only has he been open about his own problems, but he’s now listening to the stories of other people – even when prodded to leave them be. He may even have made a real difference in breaking the stigma when the next Invictus Games rolls around in 2020.