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Celebrating Cook Islands Language Week: Lieutenant Colonel Frank Prendergast

To mark Cook Islands Language Week we spoke to Lieutenant Colonel Frank Prendergast about his culture, his career, and what it means to be a Cook Islander.

01 August, 2022

Born in Mauke, the Cook Islands, in 1961, Frank is the Defence Attaché to Papua New Guinea and has served in the New Zealand Army since 1981.

Toke toke enua au no Akatokamanava, te mato I pao ia mai au,

taku ipukarea, toku enua anau,

te enua o toku ui tupuna,

i e koko

“My homeland is Mauke. It is where I come from, it is my beloved land. It is my birth land and the land of my forefathers

My pe’e, allows me to acknowledge my birth land, who I am, and share my culture through language and music. 

I am the eldest of seven, and only two of us were born in the Cook Islands before immigrating to New Zealand. My mother is from Mauke, the Cook Islands, and my father is from Raiatea, Tahiti. I enlisted with the New Zealand Army in September 1981 as a private, was promoted to Regimental Sergeant Major in January 2003, and commissioned from the ranks to Captain in November 2005. I have conducted multiple operational missions and training deployments over my career in the New Zealand Army. I have many career stories that I could share. The following are two from operational deployments in Afghanistan.  

In 2002, our special operations troop mounted a mobility patrol to assist the US Forces in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the vehicle I was travelling in rolled down a bank with two of us still in the vehicle. One was able to jump from the vehicle to safety. The vehicle with me still in it landed upside down in an icy river. The vehicle was ok. However, I and two others were severely injured. We were evacuated to Bagram Airfield for life-saving surgery before boarding a US C-17 to Germany. Two of us spent approximately a week in a US hospital before repatriating back to New Zealand. We were the first battle causalities of New Zealand’s deployment to Afghanistan. There would be more in the course of New Zealand deployment over the coming years.

In 2011, during a special operations mission, our partner Afghan Police unit and my team responded to an incident at the British Council in Kabul, Afghanistan. Suicide attackers stormed the British Council office, killing several people and taking over the compound. Six compound residents took refuge in a reinforced safe room during the attack before being rescued by our forces. A high price was paid that day when Corporal Douglas Grant and one Afghan policeman were killed. Other New Zealand operators and Afghan Police sustained injuries during the rescue. 

"I will never forget meeting those rescued several weeks later and hearing the words ‘thank you for rescuing us.’ In our line of work, you don’t hear it too often. One of those rescued said, ‘I cried when I saw my mum again, and all I wanted was to hug her."

This life of service to my country has been made easier by my loving wife, who has always supported my endeavours. She has raised two beautiful children to be great adults, and I am very proud of who they have become. She also completed her doctorate and continued her career at the University of Auckland. Education and relationships have been the centre of our family and way of life. I have and will continue to put my family before everything.

In January 2020, I was posted as the New Zealand Defence Attaché to Papua New Guinea (resident) and accredited to the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. I perform defence diplomacy on behalf of Aotearoa New Zealand. Being a Polynesian has allowed me to view my engagement not only from a diplomat lens but from a cultural perspective. Understanding Pacific values has enabled me to be in a better position to respond to and acknowledge the differences with many other cultures. It has helped me to communicate appropriately with people in a culturally responsive way.

Connecting and partnering with people this way is a point of difference for me when engaging with people from different cultures. I am incredibly privileged to serve Aotearoa New Zealand offshore and to do this in a way that aligns with my values as a Cook Islander and a New Zealand diplomat.

Lieutenant Colonel Frank Prendergast is a proud Cook Islander

I am a simple and humble man who is proud to be a Cook Islander and proudly serve New Zealand. Nothing is flash about me, and I prefer to work in the shadows of my chosen career. 

I have not used my ethnicity as an excuse to get where I am today—instead, hard work and perseverance have been the key to my success in the military.  

My military career has helped shape who I am today, and I am truly blessed and honoured. 

I am proud of my Cook Island culture and language; though I understand the spoken words, speaking the language has alluded me over the years. 

"Many may perceive that the loss of speaking can lead to a loss of culture and identity; I disagree. I know who I am and where I come from. I have not lost my culture or identity because I cannot speak Cook Island fluently yet."

I have embraced the diversity of what leadership represents during my Army career. I can be outspoken, but I primarily embody a sense of humility. My advice to anyone in the force is to work hard and with humility. Do not be afraid to seek advice from people with years of experience, because you are the future.

‘oro ki to au metua

(run to your old people)

Kia manuia"