Britain's Prince Harry meets Obamas, promotes Invictus Games

Becca Milfeld
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US First Lady Michelle Obama (R) reacts to catching a basketball alongside Britain's Prince Harry (C) and Jill Biden, wife of US Vice President, as they attend Wounded Warriors wheelchair basketball game at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, October 28, 2015

US First Lady Michelle Obama (R) reacts to catching a basketball alongside Britain's Prince Harry (C) and Jill Biden, wife of US Vice President, as they attend Wounded Warriors wheelchair basketball game at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, October 28, 2015 (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

Washington (AFP) - Britain's Prince Harry was hosted at the Oval Office Wednesday, after cheering a basketball game with the first lady, on a lightning visit to the United States to promote the 2016 Invictus Games.

Launched in London in 2014, the games for injured service personnel, founded by the British prince, hold their second edition in Orlando, Florida, in May next year.

The 31-year-old Harry joined Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the US vice president's wife, at the Fort Belvoir military installation in Virginia to meet injured troops -- and together promote the event.

Sporting a blue suit -- and beard -- Harry sat between the first and second lady through a game of wheelchair basketball, as Michelle Obama pumped up the room, saying: "It's a game, come on!"

Harry promised next year's Games would be "four really intense days of sport," while Obama quipped she must "apologize to him in advance for all the gold medals America will win."

"I know everyone involved is working to raise the bar so that this event will keep getting bigger, and bigger every single year," she said.

Michelle Obama and Jill Biden have made supporting returning and injured troops a top priority, an interest they share in common with Harry.

Wheelchairs crashed and slammed into each other as the players, some with missing or prosthetic legs, dribbled and passed up and down the court.

Blake Johnson, a 23-year-old retired Army sergeant who was injured in 2013, is aiming to make the cut for the Invictus Games.

"To have the opportunity to go to the Invictus Games, for me it's a physical healing, but it's a mental healing as well," he told AFP.


- 'Incredible contributions' -


Harry, who was to fly out later Wednesday, headed from Virginia to the White House for an informal first meeting with US President Barack Obama.

"We are very glad to support the Invictus Games," said Obama, who praised efforts "to make sure that we see not simply the sacrifices (service members) have made, but also the incredible contributions and strength and courage that they continue to display."

The president also thanked Harry for his service alongside US forces in Afghanistan, calling it "a testament to the special relationship, the incredible bond that we share between our two countries."

Harry told Obama that organizers had "huge amounts of fun" planning the games, which he said were inspired by the Warrior Games in the United States.

The 2014 Games brought together 413 wounded troops from 13 countries, doing battle across a range of sports at the Olympic Park in London, scene of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

For the 2016 edition in Orlando, organizers are betting on some 500 athletes from 15 nations, who will participate in everything from sitting volleyball to wheelchair rugby.

Jill Biden, who led the US presidential delegation to the 2014 Games, joked that she would still sit beside Harry at the day's basketball skirmish, even though in London "he was cheering for the other team."

"But I have to admit, we both ended up cheering for all the athletes. They were all so inspiring," she said.

The prince, fifth in line to the throne, has served twice in Afghanistan: once on the ground in 2007-2008 as a forward air controller calling in air strikes and once flying attack helicopters in 2012-2013.

At a post-scrimmage reception at the British ambassador's house, Harry said that he first felt compelled to do something for wounded soldiers during his first tour in 2008, when he returned home to Britain on a plane carrying "three seriously injured soldiers and the coffin of a Danish soldier."

"For me, this is where it all started," he told the crowd.

Harry struck a mostly stoic tone, distancing himself from the reputation he earned in his 20s as a wild child.

But Michelle Obama didn't let the crowd forget who was in its midst.

"All right ladies. Prince Harry is here. Don't look like you guys don't notice," she said.