When then-Air Force Staff Sgt. Mike Maroney received a tight hug and brilliant smile from a 3-year-old Hurricane Katrina survivor whom he plucked from a rooftop with her family, he expected that he would never see her again.
Nearly 12 years after the sweltering September 2005 day that he said goodbye to the grateful child, they have forged a bond so strong that the girl, LaShay Brown, plans to follow Maroney’s footsteps into the military.
LaShay, 14, of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, also had Maroney escort her to her JROTC ball Saturday night at Bay High School.
“It would be nobody else that could bring me here, and it would be more special to him,” LaShay told WLOX in Biloxi.
Maroney credits that long-ago hug from LaShay with “rescuing him.” The para-rescuer, who was battling PTSD at the time, was a week into his rescue mission in New Orleans when he was lowered from a helicopter onto a roof where two parents and five children, including LaShay, had been stranded for days.
Maroney, now a staff sergeant, recalled the rescue in 2015 for the Air Force Times, which was among dozens of publications that helped him find the little girl whose grin had stayed with him for a decade. The girl, whose name he never got, seemed fearless that day, he told the Times.
As her mother cried on the helicopter, LaShay rubbed her back to comfort her.
“It’s OK,” Maroney recalled her telling her mother. “We’re safe. Don’t worry.”
When the helicopter dropped off the family at the airport, which was being used as a staging area for evacuees to be moved out of the broken city, LaShay wrapped her arms around Maroney’s neck and hugged him in a moment captured by an Air Force photographer.
That photo, which ended up on everything from military coins to Burger King place mats, represented for many the strength and resilience of Katrina survivors. It made its way into Mahoney’s heart, and it accompanied him on subsequent tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he said it gave him hope during difficult moments.
“If not for her hug and smile that day, my life would probably be a lot different,” Mahoney told WLOX.
As the 10th anniversary of the deadly storm approached in 2015, Mahoney, who had since become a master sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, began trying to find the little girl. Thanks to a viral campaign people called #FindKatrinaGirl, he and LaShay were reunited on an episode of the television show “The Real.”
Since then, Mahoney has become close to LaShay and her family. His encouragement led her to join the JROTC at school, so it was natural for her to ask him to escort her to the ball.
“I’m going because I would do anything to repay the hug to LaShay and her family,” Mahoney told People last week. “They mean as much to me as my own.”
His guidance also led to LaShay’s decision to join the military after graduation. Maroney supports that decision, he told People.
“I am proud of her no matter what she does and will support her in everything she does,” Maroney said. “I think she understands service, and I believe that she will do great things no matter what she chooses.”