WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Nov. 29, 2012) -- It's a scene that is perhaps as old as the U.S. military itself: Soldiers gathered around a cot or makeshift table, playing cards during downtime.

For Soldiers, the downtime is an opportunity to relax and joke. For Command Sgt. Maj. Brunk W. Conley, the sergeant major of the Army National Guard, it's a perfect opportunity to talk with Soldiers. During a recent visit to New York City, Conley used such an opportunity to get a firsthand feel for the Army Guard response to Hurricane Sandy.

"I could sit and talk with young privates and specialists all day long," said Conley. "I'm a high school physics and chemistry teacher. I like being around the kids. It keeps you young. They keep you engaged and realize what makes this country great."

As part of his visit to New York, Conley talked with Soldiers during their downtime; but he also visited with Soldiers as they provided assistance in the field. Soldiers in Queens, for instance, took part in debris removal and clean-up operations. In nearby Brooklyn, Guard Soldiers helped with water and food distribution.

Conley said he was impressed by the Soldiers, the work they were doing, their dedicated response, and their desire to simply "help out."

"I think that's universal throughout the Guard," said Conley. "Those are your neighbors. That's your state. That's part of what you signed up for."

The response, Conley said, was no different than when Guard members responded in 2005 when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated New Orleans.

"The spirit of the Soldier and the Airmen was the same," he said. "I'm here to help my neighbors."

There was a difference, however, in the geography of the affected area.

"I think we were able to downsize -- right size -- a lot quicker here," he said, in reference to the Guard response.

"They weren't dealing with floodwaters here," said Conley, who served as part of the response to Katrina. "They were dealing with the initial storm surge and the damage from that, which was just as devastating as Katrina, but they didn't have the standing water to have to deal with over time."

Responding to incidents such as Sandy is one of the reasons many Soldiers who took part in relief operations enlisted in the Army Guard, said Conley.

"I would ask each group how many of them joined to do this and 75 percent of the hands would go up," said Conley. "They joined because they wanted to be a part of things. They wanted to be engaged in missions at home and overseas but they also wanted to stay in their communities and help their state."

And at the peak of operations, more than 12,000 Guard members responded from 21 states and the District of Columbia.

"These young kids, these young Americans, are the true epitome of the Citizen-Soldier," Conley said, adding that speaks volumes about the future.

"The future is solidified by those great privates and specialists out there over these last three weeks of Hurricane Sandy (relief operations), demonstrating to America what we're capable of doing," he said.

The trip itself was planned weeks before Sandy made landfall as a way for Conley to get a sense of issues affecting the enlisted members of the Army Guard.

But, with Guard members responding in the aftermath of the storm, Conley said it provided an opportunity to meet with Soldiers "as they were doing their mission and talk with them about what motivates them and what they're doing (as part of response efforts)."

And for Conley, it comes back to spending time listening to Soldiers and hearing their concerns, which he said is one of the things he enjoys most.

"I hit the lottery," he said. "I can't believe they're paying me to do this stuff."