In a rare joyous moment amid the pure dismay of Hurricane Katrina, an Air Force pararescuer saved a 3-year-old girl and her family from the floods in 2005. After the rescue, the little girl gave the man a huge hug that was captured in an iconic photo.
The moment left a lasting impact on both LaShay Brown and Master Sgt. Mike Maroney. The duo reunited a decade later and have kept in touch ever since. Maroney has visited LaShay, now 14, and her family in Mississippi, and they speak on the phone weekly, according to People. He even taught her how to swim.
LaShay said Maroney’s support has inspired her to join the military one day. She said she doesn’t know which branch yet, but Maroney supports her.
“I am proud of her no matter what she does and will support her in everything she does,” he told People. “I think she understands service and I believe that she will do great things no matter what she chooses.”
Maroney also inspired LaShay to join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at her high school.
“It was very interesting and a challenge, and because I had never done it before,” she told People. “I knew if I joined I would have help from Mike along the way if I needed it, or was confused about anything.”
Maroney, who will retire from the Air Force this month because of an injury, will accompany LaShay to her JROTC ball on Saturday. He said that he’s going because LaShay and her family “mean as much to [him] as [his] own.”
Maroney, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when he rescued LaShay, set out to find the teen in 2015 with the hashtag #FindKatrinaGirl. He said that he looked at the photo of the two while he was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan to get him through difficult times.
When they were reunited on “The Real,” he told LaShay how much her hug meant to him.
“That small gesture, it helped me through bad days and dark days,” he told her. “You have a beautiful smile and it stuck with me and it’s helped me and has meant a lot to me. So I’m indebted to you. You rescued me more than I rescued you.”