Garrett Kuwada tells PEOPLE how the Duke of Sussex playfully presented his gold medal
The U.S. Air Force veteran, 53, is currently competing for Team USA at the sixth edition of the Invictus Games, which are in full swing in Düsseldorf, Germany. Prince Harry founded the international adaptive sports tournament for wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans in 2014, aiming to amplify the transformative power of sport for those who have served.
Garrett, who made his Invictus debut at the 2022 Games at The Hague, exclusively tells PEOPLE it’s an honor to compete for his country — and a joy to befriend Prince Harry. The veteran chatted with the Duke of Sussex behind the scenes at the big event last year and spent more time with Harry when he went scuba diving in Hawaii (Garrett’s home state) in November. Cameras captured the epic adventure for Heart of Invictus, Netflix’s limited series about competitors from six countries preparing for The Hague tournament.
"That was awesome, just hanging with him on the boat. He’s a veteran, and like all vets, when we get together, we talk, laugh, joke and tease each other. He’s just like one of the guys, it was an amazing experience,” he tells PEOPLE. “He makes you feel like you’ve known him forever."
After a ruptured brain aneurysm in 2016, Garrett has navigated a loss of coordination and balance, hearing, vision, speech and cognitive function, per the 15th Wing. He retired from the Air Force in 2018 after over 27 years of service and has found strength in competing in the Department of Defense's Warrior Games and the Invictus Games. Prince Harry, who rose to the rank of captain during his decade of service in the British Army and deployed twice to Afghanistan, was inspired to launch the Paralympic-style sports tournament on the international stage after attending the Warrior Games in 2013.
At the Invictus Games in Düsseldorf, Garrett is competing in wheelchair rugby, swimming and track and field — and the week began with a win! The Air Force vet helped Team USA cinch first place against Team U.K. in the wheelchair rugby gold medal match on Sunday. The Duke of Sussex personally presented medals — with his signature sense of play.
“At the gold medal match, as he was about to put the gold medal on me, he grabbed my beard and shook it!” Garrett said with a laugh of his interaction with Harry. “He said a few words to me and gave me a big hug. It’s awesome to feel that he recognizes me, comes up and treats me like I’m one of his friends. Like all veterans do, [when] we don’t talk to each other for maybe months or years — when we get together, it’s like we never left. That’s what it feels like when I talk with him.”
In the same spirit, the athlete hopes to pay the warmth forward — on the ground in Düsseldorf and beyond.
“I had a buddy — well, we’re buddies now – but I just met him tonight. He was struggling before a race, so I just asked him if everything was okay. He was having problems, so we just started talking, and he started telling me, he’s got his demons, and I was like, ‘I know what you’re talking about,’ ” Garrett tells PEOPLE. “It looked like he was about to pull out of the race, and I said, ‘Hey man, I’ll be right there with you swimming.’ He stayed, and he’s still competing. It’s just things like that.”
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Taking PEOPLE into the unique energy of Invictus, Garrett likened the atmosphere to a homecoming or reunion. The 2023 Invictus Games, which welcomed 21 nations and 500 athletes to Düsseldorf, officially opened on Saturday and the competition commenced on Sunday. The tournament is set to run until Sept. 16.
“Even just now when I looked out, everybody’s got a smile on their face. Every competitor that’s out there, they’re smiling. And they’re from all different countries,” Garrett tells PEOPLE of what he sees. “And they’re from all different countries. I’m so grateful that Prince Harry put this together for us veterans to come together and use this as part of our healing process. And we are, we’re healing, because everybody is smiling.”
Garrett attends the Invictus Games with his wife Joey, their son Casey and Casey's girlfriend Brianna. Joey tells PEOPLE that like many families and friends of athletes competing today, adaptive sports and Invictus have been a light in their family’s life.
“It’s very important. Our story specifically, and also hearing stories from other family members and athletes. This is lifesaving to a lot of people,” she says. “This is something that veterans, from our story, Garrett and I’s story, it saved his life. He looks forward to competing, it gives him purpose, it gives him something to strive for. He’s retired and his only job is to be an athlete, to be a competitor. And so for something like this to have for these injured servicemen and women, it’s needed. A lot of veterans feel like their lives are over, and they have nothing more positive to experience. But these Games, you can see, tell a whole different story.”
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