"The resiliency that she had has been a strength for me," Mike Maroney tells PEOPLE
As the poignant photo of the twosome hugging swept the nation, so did Maroney’s search for the happy girl and her family.
After PEOPLE broke the news earlier this month that Maroney, 40, had ultimately found his “Katrina Girl” (her name is LeShay Brown), the pair finally reunited during an emotional taping of The Real on Tuesday.
Maroney first explained to the show’s hosts why LeShay’s hug had inspired him so much, saying, “If she’s strong enough to handle this, I can handle this.” Then, the pararescue jumper of 19 years was finally “re-introduced” to the girl who changed his life all those years ago.
After taking a moment to finally embrace again, Maroney told a choked up LeShay, “I wish I could explain to you how important your hug was. Your small gesture helped me through a dark phase. You rescued me more than I rescued you.”
Unfortunately, both families have hit hard times since Katrina (Maroney is injured and therefore cannot currently serve), so the pair was shocked and overjoyed when the hosts presented each family with a $10,000 check.
Speaking to PEOPLE exclusively after their meeting, LeShay (who doesn’t remember much from the actual rescue), said that what Maroney told her “really means a lot.” Her mother, Shawntrell Brown, said, “I remember Mike was a nice man then, and he’s such a nice man now.”
Maroney, clearly moved by the experience, told the Browns he has “dreamt of this day for a long time” and that “finding you guys, and knowing you’re okay, has been a weight off my back.”
He further explained of his job, “I ve rescued a lot of people, but there have also been a lot of people I couldn t rescue. Life sometimes gets dark, knowing there are good people who love life and are happy, the resiliency that she had has been a strength for me.”
As to how the publicity has changed their lives, Shawntrell joked, “LeShay is famous! Everyone has been coming up to us every day, asking us about it.” LeShay, for her part, offered a pretty typical 13-year-old viewpoint on the reunion, saying, “Yeah, but I m pretty sure I m going to have to run bleachers when I go back to school because I missed practices.”
The families will see each other again later this month in the Brown’s adopted town of Waveland, Mississippi, and plan to keep in touch. “We’ve already been texting, checking in on each other, and talking quite a bit,” Maroney explains.
And what of the $10,000? Shawntrell hopes to buy a much-needed car and may have to give in to LeShay’s desire for an iPhone, while Maroney plans to catch up on some debts.
Maroney’s first purchase, though, occurred later that evening when he delivered a surprise chocolate milkshake to LeShay’s hotel door.
“She told me she loves ice cream!” he says.