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Hurricane Katrina: National Guard Relief Effort

September 8, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: 50,000 members of the National Guard are now in the region hit by Hurricane Katrina. Among them are nearly 2,000 from the Oregon National Guard, and among those are about 700 who previously served in Iraq. One is command Sergeant Major Brunk Conley of the 41st Infantry Brigade. In civilian life, he’s a high school physics teacher in Stayton, Oregon. He joins from us New Orleans, and welcome to you, sir. Tell us about the work you and your fellow guardsmen have been doing there in the last 24 hours.

COMMAND SGT. MAJOR BRUNK CONLEY: Yes, sir, hello. Right now the majority of our soldiers, I would say 50 percent of them, just got on the ground today. But within the last 24 hours, soldiers that have been on the ground have evacuated civilians that have come to us and said that they’re ready to leave. We have made contact with the local law enforcement in our sector to make sure that we’re working closely with them to ensure that we know what each other are doing so that we can coordinate our efforts so we can be as efficient as possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: How difficult are these last evacuations proving to be?

COMMAND SGT. MAJOR BRUNK CONLEY: Well, you know, I think it’s — the folks that decided they were going to ride out the hurricane are now finding out that after, you know, seven days to ten days that the supplies are running out, the power’s coming back up, the sewer is not coming back up, they have no water. And as resilient as they’ve been, they’re finding that it’s about time, and we’re doing everything we can to help facilitate them getting to a safe place.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what are conditions like for you now, you and your men and women working there now?

COMMAND SGT. MAJOR BRUNK CONLEY: Well, sir, I’ll be honest with you, we have had soldiers that have deployed to the Sinai, we had a group deployed to Iraq before my unit did and then my unit went to Iraq. I can tell you the physical support structure here for the soldiers and the citizens is far more difficult than anything we faced in Iraq.

When we got there, the support structure was in place, and right here we are having to run on the on the fly. If you are a problem solver, this is a problem solver’s paradise. We are changing the situation by the second, and it’s very exciting.

Also I would like to say that, not only is it a Guard effort and a Guard effort across the nation, it’s also a national effort as our employers and our families and our friends, we wouldn’t be able to do this without the folks at home allowing us to put this suit on, get on an airplane and get down here.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s the morale like there for you and your colleagues, the police, others — others working there, after all these days where things look very dire, what is it like now?

COMMAND SGT. MAJOR BRUNK CONLEY: Well, the morale is outstanding. I’ll tell you, I was almost brought to tears today as we brought a — a lady came to our front gate and asked for help. She had a domestic issue and just wanted to get her gear. And we pulled her in and we talked to her and we got her some medical attention and got her belongings and took her to the convention center, and I couldn’t have felt prouder that day, or this morning.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is it like to go from Iraq to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

COMMAND SGT. MAJOR BRUNK CONLEY: Well, you know, this is what we do. When we get called and we know that these are Americans that need our help, and I would say that every soldier I talked to today as they came in, they are motivated to be here, they want to do their part. They know that these people need help, and they would do the same thing for us if we had issues in Oregon or anywhere else in the world. It’s incredible. It’s a very good feeling to be of help.

JEFFREY BROWN: In civilian life, as I said in the introduction, you’re a high school physics teacher, and here you have found yourself involved in two of the great traumas of our age. What is that like?

COMMAND SGT. MAJOR BRUNK CONLEY: Well, sir, I started out in the 2nd Ranger Battalion back when I was an 18-year-old private. And I wanted to stay in the Army, but my wife — I was married at the time — she wanted to get out. And so we decided that we both wanted to be teachers.

But to keep my military fix, because she put the pressure on me, she allowed me to stay in the National Guard. I’ve always wanted to be involved in something like this. I view myself as a soldier who also teaches, and when the call came up, I’m probably more comfortable being in the green uniform. Although I love teaching, I love every bit of it, but I think I was born to be a soldier, and I’m glad to be called up to come do this stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Sergeant Major Brunk Conley, thank you very much for joining us, and good luck.

COMMAND SGT. MAJOR BRUNK CONLEY: All right, thank you, sir.