It was a moment that would change both of their lives forever. Master Sergeant Mike Maroney brought terrified toddler LaShay Brown to safety and held her in his arms in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Brown, then just three years old, had been caught up in the hurricane’s destructive path at her home in New Orleans.
And Brown and her family could have faced death had it not been for the actions of the brave air rescuer. After all, Hurricane Katrina destroyed lives across New Orleans when it struck the city in 2005. And in the hours before the tropical storm, city officials seemed to know how hard it would hit when they issued a mandatory evacuation order. Most of the city’s residents were then forced to flee to escape the devastation.
However, some residents who could not escape – around a fifth of the city does not own a car – were forced to shelter in a local sports stadium. Others, meanwhile, simply prayed for the best as they waited for the storm to die out while staying in their own homes.
Tragically, by the time the hurricane was finally over, almost 2,000 had perished. In addition, thousands more had become refugees in Katrina’s wake. And around 90,000 miles of the country suffered some consequence of the storm. New Orleans bore the brunt of Katrina, however; an astonishing 80 percent of the city was submerged under water after the hurricane hit.
In the meantime, thousands of people remained stranded in the area. Government officials spent days scrambling to formulate a plan to help the city’s residents, many of whom were underprivileged and desperately in need of help. Eventually, around 34,000 people were saved by the Coast Guard. The U.S. Air Force was also drafted in to save people from the sky.
And pararescue specialist Mike Maroney was in one of the crews sent out to search for and rescue stranded civilians. During his mission, moreover, he spotted Brown and her family pleading for help from the deadly torrents below. But once Brown was saved from the floods, she did something that Maroney probably never anticipated. Minutes after he rescued the toddler, she put her arms around him and gave him a hug so beautiful that it would change his life forever.
As it happened, the touching moment was captured by a press photographer, and the image spread around the world. It was even used as part of several social media campaigns. Plus, the photographer who took the picture gave Maroney a copy of the photograph as a keepsake.
What’s more, the moment had such a profound effect on Maroney, who is a war veteran, that he even took the photograph with him on tours of Afghanistan and Iraq. It truly was a moment that changed his life, and it made him want to seek out the girl he had rescued.
The sergeant has even claimed to have found comfort in the picture during his inner battle with PTSD. Maroney began suffering from the condition following his time serving in war zones around the world on behalf of the U.S. military.
And, as time went on, Maroney found himself wanting to meet the girl whose hug had made such an impact on his life. To that end, he launched a social media campaign in a bid to find the youngster. Sadly, however, his first attempt failed after his efforts stacked up just 42 likes. After that, Maroney had all but given up on his dream of encountering Brown ever again.
In 2015, though, he decided to once again attempt to track down the little girl, creating the hashtag “#FindKatrinaGirl” as part of the search. This time around, the airforce man’s luck turned, and the pair were finally reunited a decade after the storm first hit. They met after producers from U.S. reality show The Real managed to find Brown in September 2015.
And when the two finally met, Maroney opened his heart to Brown. He told her, “You rescued me more than I rescued you.” Brown, meanwhile, had little recollection of the rescue. However, Maroney claimed that she was extremely brave during the ordeal. He added that she had even shown him her house and school down below as she was being whisked to safety.
That meeting would signal the start of a beautiful friendship between the two. In fact, Maroney now regularly calls in on Brown and her family. The two converse on the telephone each week; he has even given her swimming lessons. And so it isn’t only Maroney who has benefited from their meeting; it is clear that Maroney has had a positive impact on her life, too.
In fact, the youngster has since gone on to become part of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program as a result of Maroney’s inspiration. The scheme is designed to give high school students a taste of life in the U.S. military. It also acts as a pre-training program for youngsters hoping to join U.S. forces later in life.
Speaking about her move to join the program, Brown told People, “It was very interesting and a challenge, and because I had never done it before. I knew if I joined I would have help from Mike along the way if I needed it, or was confused about anything.”
Meeting Maroney has had such an impact on Brown’s life, in fact, that when the time came for her to invite somebody to her JROTC ball, she had only one person in mind. And when Brown asked Maroney to the dance, his answer was clear. “I’m going because I would do anything to repay the hug to LaShay and her family. They mean as much to me as my own,” he told People.
Brown now plans to follow in Maroney’s footsteps and take up a role in the military. However, she has yet to decide if she will take a post in the air force or a position elsewhere in the U.S. forces.
Regardless of what she decides to do, however, there is one person who says that he will support her no matter what. “I am proud of her no matter what she does and will support her in everything she does,” Maroney told People. “I think she understands service, and I believe that she will do great things no matter what she chooses.”
As for Maroney, he plans to take retirement from his career in the air force. He also now uses his time and talents to encourage youngsters across America to follow in his footsteps and take jobs on the battlefield.
Despite having hung up his helmet, however, Maroney will carry on in his role as a friend and mentor to Brown. He told People, “Life in service to the planet is important whether serving in the military or as a teacher, nurse or volunteer. Service makes life that much more appreciated.”