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Retired Maj. Gen. Gene Prendergast started at the bottom and, through hard work and determination, worked his way to the top.

After graduating from Helena High in 1958, Prendergast enlisted in the Montana Air National Guard in 1958. He would go on to serve 46 years in the military, the last 12 as Montana’s adjutant general of the National Guard.

“My goal and mission was to have the Montana National Guard be the best trained force in the nation,” said Prendergast, 79, who retired in 2004, “to be prepared for war and also to have the ability to promote peace across the world.”

Prendergast transferred to the Army National Guard in 1960, and spent the first nine years of his service as an enlisted man. After working with the field training and equipment concentration site at Fort Harrison, and attaining the rank of sergeant, he switched to becoming an officer in 1967.

He attended the Montana Military Academy, receiving his commission as an ordnance officer. His first command followed in 1972 when he took the helm of the 3669th Maintenance Company in Helena.

Among Prendergast’s titles as he worked his way up the ladder were: automotive platoon leader, instructor at the Montana Military Academy, assistant commandant and chief of staff.

A fiery competitor, while playing in the Guard and City basketball leagues in the 1960s and ’70s, Prendergast (at just 5-foot-8) posted game-scoring highs of 44 and 36 points, respectively. “Mostly on the fast break,” he added. He also played shortstop for the District fastpitch softball champion Helena Sand & Gravel team.

Prendergast took up distance running in the late 1970s, and went on to log over 31,000 miles in 46 states and 14 countries.

In 1993, he graduated from Regents College at the State University of New York, and was appointed the State adjutant general and director of military affairs by Governor Marc Racicot.

As adjutant general, Prendergast commanded all Montana National Guard personnel, administration operations and combined armed forces during combat and peacetime. He also led Guard initiatives to provide medical assistance and training to all Native American nations in the state.

Perhaps the benchmark of his career was the Partnership for Peace Program, an effort that transpired almost entirely on his watch as adjutant general. The program was initiated by NATO in 1991 to establish ties with armies serving the new Russian republics.

Under Prendergast's leadership, Montana’s effort in the program has become an international model. In 2003, it culminated in his selection by the U.S. Secretary of Defense to chair the partnership program for the National Guard Bureau.

A list of his career highlights also includes establishing “Red Horse” at Malmstrom Air Force Base, the first Air National Guard-U.S. Air Force associated unit in the nation; securing a Partnership for Peace with the nation of Kyrgystan; leading the standup of a “Black Horse” Army National Guard unit at Fort Harrison, supporting the National Training Center’s OPFOR; and being instrumental in obtaining $150 million for military construction funds for the Montana National Guard.

Among Prendergast’s more prestigious honors are the Legion of Merit award, Distinguished Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and an Army Commendation Medal.

He also has a deep personal commitment to ensuring the well-being of Montana’s youth. Prendergast was in charge of Helena’s D.A.R.E. program, and instituted Carroll College’s ROTC unit. In 1999, he founded Montana’s Youth ChalleNGe Program, and since then over 3,000 at-risk youths have graduated with enhanced education, life skills and employment potential.

Since his retirement in 2004, Prendergast has remained active with multiple organizations. He serves on the board of directors of the Montana Meth Project, is chairman of the Lewis & Clark Veterans Memorial, and is part of the Tribal Veterans Representative Program -- to name a few.

Prendergast was the recipient of Carroll’s Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa; and has been adopted into the Blackfeet Tribe, named “Buffalo Watches Over Me,” because he watched over the soldiers.

A family man as well, Gene and his wife Kathy raised two children and have four grandsons.

And although hesitant to be featured on Veterans Day – “I’d prefer you selected a combat veteran,” he told this reporter – because of his 46 years of distinguished service, and ongoing efforts to help veterans, Maj. Gen. Prendergast is one of the most beloved members of the state’s armed forces.

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Curt Synness, a Navy veteran, can be reached at (406) 594-2878 or email curt52synness@gmail.com. He’s also on Twitter @curtsynness_IR

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