Moments after Prince Harry helped raise the iconic Invictus Games flag on the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge, he comforted a serviceman's widow who joined him on the climb
Moments after Prince Harry helped raise the iconic Invictus Games flag on the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge, he comforted a serviceman’s widow who joined him on the climb.
Gwen Cherne, 41, who was one of the select group scaling the bridge with the prince, shared how a sympathetic Harry listened to the story of her late husband, Australian special forces officer Peter J. Cafe, who died by suicide in February 2017 at the age of 48.
The pair spoke for nearly 10 minutes on the descent and the prince asked about her children – Emily, 6, Lachlan, 3, and stepson Tom, 19 – and how the family was coping.
“Lachlan is the spitting image of my husband. Harry said something like the children must remind you of him, or live on in him. And I said my son is so much like him,” Cherne, who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, tells PEOPLE. “It was comfortable and thoughtful.”
Cherne says Harry – who lost his mother, Princess Diana, when he was just 12 – and her spoke about “grief and loss.”
“He understood what I meant. When you understand loss, I think it’s obvious,” she explained. “He did ask me if I was getting the support I need from the Defense and ex-servicemen and veteran community.” She works closely with U.S.-based Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors and talked to Harry about their partnership with the U.K.’s Diana Award.
- Can’t get enough of PEOPLE’s Royals coverage? Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest updates on Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle and more!
Harry, who is touring Australia with pregnant wife Meghan Markle, 37, was on the bridge to help herald the start of his Paralympic-style contest for wounded, sick and injured servicemen and women and veterans, which starts in Sydney this weekend.
As the 34-year-old prince’s entourage tried to move them along from the outing, Harry wanted to ensure they had enough time to talk.
“He stopped and said, ‘I’m in a middle of a conversation, and I’m not going to leave this.’ 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. And how important things like the Invictus Games are to shedding light on, and allowing people to start to have these conversations that are great to have.”
Cherne, who is an advisor for widows, veterans and families for the Australian Department of Veterans Affairs and an Invictus Games Ambassador 2018, adds that grief is “the basis of so much suffering. We are not dealing with the daily losses we have or the major losses of a husband or a son. 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.”
She added, “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.”
Harry “asked quite a few questions about my story, so he had it correct in his head,” she says.
Cherne met Peter – known as Pete – when she was working in development in Afghanistan in 2008. He re-enlisted in the Australian army in 2010, joining the special forces, second commando regiment, in 2012. She moved to Australia, giving birth to Emily while he was on deployment to Afghanistan in 2012.
Then four years later, while deployed in Iraq in first half of 2016 he suffered a stroke.
“He had shown signs of PTSD, anxiety and paranoia during our entire relationship. But after the stroke his cognition was not improving as quickly as he would have liked it to. The only sign was that he wasn’t processing things as quickly, and he had a small black spot in his eyesight,” she explains.
“When you’re in a high-performing environment, like the Special Forces, when you’re not performing at your highest, you can tell that,” Cherne said. “That created a lot of anxiety and pressure for him. He started losing thoughts. He didn’t believe Defense had his best interests at heart – even though they were telling him everything to the contrary. And he became really angry and violent on the Friday and then on the Monday morning he died by suicide in our garage.”
“Me being involved in the Invictus Games has actually got me out of bed. I gain resilience,” Cherne shares. “I don’t have to climb a mountain today, but just put one foot in front of the other.”
She says Harry and Meghan “are doing so much good with their place in the world, using their power and their privilege. Many of our leaders could learn from that. They are changing peoples’ lives because of it. They are changing the way we are looking at mental health globally because they care, they are paying attention to it, and flying that Invictus Games. That is changing – and saving – lives every single day.”