Usually, when military personnel are brought in to rescue civilians, the parties involved never see each other again. But Master Sergeant Mike Maroney of the U.S. Air Force and LaShay Brown, the little girl he saved during Hurricane Katrina, are quite a different story.
When pararescuer (or PJ) Maroney picked up LaShay and her family from the waters of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the little girl gave her rescuer a big hug that he never forgot. The moment was captured in an award-winning photograph that circled the globe.
Maroney, who was battling PTSD at the time, carried the photo with him on difficult deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, to remind him of that special moment. Eventually, he tried to find the little girl who changed his life, even launching a #FindKatrinaGirl social media campaign. Finally, 10 years after that fateful storm, the two were reunited on the set of The Real in September 2015. Upon their reunion, Maroney told LaShay, “You rescued me more than I rescued you.”
But Maroney and LaShay didn’t end their newfound bond there. Since that day, the former pararescuer has visited the Brown family in Mississippi (even teaching LaShay how to swim), and has spoken to LaShay on the phone weekly.
Maroney’s encouragement has been so important to LaShay that she decided to join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps or (JROTC), a pre-training program sponsored by the United States Armed Forces at Bay High School in Waveland, Mississippi.
Of her decision to join JROTC, LaShay tells 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.”
This Saturday, Maroney and his family will once again visit the Browns, as LaShay, 14, is bringing her “PJ” friend to her JROTC ball.
“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,” Maroney says.
LaShay says she plans to join the military one day, but hasn’t decided which branch — a decision Maroney supports.
“I am proud of her no matter what she does and will support her in everything she does,” he says. “I think she understands service and I believe that she will do great things no matter what she chooses.”
Maroney will be retiring from the Air Force later this month due to an injury, and now spends his days speaking to young people around the country as well as training people for battlefield jobs such as Pararescue, CombatControl, SERE and Tacp.
He says of his influence on LaShay, as well as his current mentorships, “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.”