Reporting for Duty — Sir!

updated 01/23/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

After 23 years in the most lofty of perches, Prince William is taking on a far more humbling role: On Jan. 8, he became Officer Cadet Wales at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Taking a cue from his little brother Harry, 21, William became the latest Windsor to take up the rigorous officer training provided by the British version of West Point. “Bye, Pa,” shouted William as Charles rode off.

“He will be treated the same as every other cadet,” says Sandhurst commandant Maj. Gen. Andrew Ritchie. “There are no exceptions.”

Indeed, William's prince-to-recruit transformation might well come as a “horrific shock,” says a former cadet. First, he likely gets a new do: a buzz cut courtesy of the barracks barber. Next comes an introduction to the daily tasks that will define his year: pressing his pants, making a dime-tight bed and scrubbing latrine floors. The menial duties, however, pale next to physical challenges, from predawn drills in ditches neck-high with mud to 35-mile marches. William, fresh from an internship in London's financial district and a stint with the Royal Air Force Mountain Rescue Team, says he intends to heave his own load at Sandhurst: “The last thing I want is to be mollycoddled or wrapped up in cotton wool,” he said in a recent interview. “If I was to join the army, I'd want to go where my men went and do what they did.”

A more immediate concern: not being able to visit Kate Middleton, 24, his girlfriend of three years, until the conclusion of basic training in mid-February. On a romantic vacation in Switzerland days before parting, the couple nuzzled as much as they skied. Will their love stand the Sandhurst test? “Who knows? Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” says a pal. “If it is going to work, they need to have these breaks to test them.”

Perhaps William will seek advice from Harry, whose one-year romance with Chelsy Davy, 20, is thriving. Of course, Harry might take this rare opportunity to show his big brother who's boss. Senior cadets are prone to tease the new rank and file and, when he graduates in April, Commandant Ritchie says, Harry will be well within his rights to “get his brother to salute him.” All in good fun, to be sure. “They are so close,” says a friend. “You can guarantee that Harry will keep a watchful eye on his brother.”

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