September 15, 2005 11:35 AM

Britain’s Prince Harry says he plans to spend his 21st birthday Thursday “in a ditch in the middle of Wales,” referring to military exercises at Sandhurst academy, “then have a beer in the evening.”

Harry, often described as a “wild child” and photographed partying, revealed a newfound maturity in interviews on the eve of his birthday. Some credit his Sandhurst experience with helping him grow up.

“I was expecting a shuffling young man, but he was articulate and confident,” Sky News’s Katharine Witty, who met Harry near the grounds of the Highgrove estate told PEOPLE. “He came across as a normal guy. He is thoughtful.”

Speaking with reporters at Prince Charles’s farm in Gloucestershire, England, Harry said that his military experience has convinced him he should pursue a career in the service. “I do enjoy running down a ditch full of mud, firing bullets,” he said. “It’s the way I am. I love it.”

Harry also told one journalist he hoped to fight on the frontlines, Reuters reports. “There is no way I am going to put myself through Sandhurst and then sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country.”

However, the young military man saw no contradiction between being a good soldier and having a good time. “I am who I am and I’m not going to change,” he said. Harry’s been criticized in the media for some of his wild ways, including alleged marijuana use and underage drinking, but it was a picture of the young prince in a Nazi uniform earlier this year that riled critics around the world.

“It was a very stupid thing to do and I’ve learned my lesson. Maybe it was a sign of my own immaturity,” a contrite Harry said. “Something like that I will never do again.”

The young prince also praised his father’s new wife, Camilla Parker Bowles. “She’s always been very close to me and William…She’s not the wicked stepmother,” he said. “She’s a wonderful woman and she’s made our father very, very happy which is the most important thing.”

Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, who died in a car crash nine years ago, blamed Parker-Bowles in part for the dissolution of her marriage to Charles.

The only aspect of his life Harry wouldn’t talk much about was his relationship with 19-year-old Chelsy Davy, whom he called “amazing.”

Whether she’s been an influence on his decision to spend more time doing charity work – Harry spent part of his break last year working with AIDS orphans in Africa – is anyone’s guess. But he is walking in his mother’s footsteps by taking an active role in several charitable organizations, including Centrepoint, a London-based homeless charity for youths.

“My mother introduced that sort of area to me a long time ago,” William said in an interview last November. “It’s been something I’ve held close to me for a long time.”

And he says it’s important to him to give back to the community. “I’m not going to be some person in the royal family who just finds a lame excuse to go abroad and do all sorts of sunny holidays and whatever,” he said.

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