Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it brought to so many families lives is simply indescribable.
Almost 2,000 people were killed, with an estimated $108 billion dollars worth of damage to property.
It was one of the most deadliest hurricanes in United States history.
But in a rare moment of joy amongst the catastrophic scenes, a heartwarming photo went viral.
Little LaShay Brown beamed brightly as she wrapped her arms around her brave rescuer Master Sergeant Mike Maroney of the U.S. Air Force.
Ten years after the deadly hurricane, Maroney set out to find the little girl who stole his heart.
Since Katrina, he has tried to trace her, even sending a letter to Oprah Winfrey.
He circulated the picture online once a year in the hope that someone might recognize her – but to no avail.
‘I would love to get another hug and see how she’s doing. I’d love her to know that there isn’t a day I haven’t thought of her.’
After a huge social media campaign, #FindKatrinaGirl, the veteran could barely hold back his tears as he and Brown were reunited on stage in 2015.
The hosts of the daytime show The Real then presented each of them with a check for $10,000.
On that fateful day in 2005, LaShay Brown and her family were still waiting for help almost a week after the storm hit.
The specialist team which included Sergeant Mike Maroney swooped in to help.
Sergeant Mike told the Airforce Times how he helped save the fearless youngster with her parents and four siblings.
He recalls how LeShay excitedly pointed out her home and her school from the hoist.
She reached out to rub her mother’s back and comforted her as she cried saying ‘It’s OK,’ and ‘We’re safe. Don’t worry.’
As he dropped her off at New Orleans International Airport with the rest of her family, a colleague captured their hug on camera.
‘If I never do anything else again, that hug and that smile made it all worthwhile,’ he said.
He had no idea how far the image would travel until more than a year later, when he was on a deployment to Iraq.
Another airman told him he had seen the image on military coins handed out as change at the base exchange.
‘Your hug, it helped me through hard days, and rough days,’ said Maroney, who was battling PTSD, as they shared another embrace on stage.
‘You rescued me more than I rescued you,’ he told Brown who began to cry tears of joy.
The airman said he had carried the photograph of them hugging with him, even on tours of Iraq and Afghanistan.
After Maroney and LaShay appeared on the talk show they kept in close contact. The former pararescuer visited the Brown family in Mississippi (even teaching LaShay how to swim), and has spoken to LaShay on the phone weekly.
With his encouragement, LaShay decided to join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) – a pre-training program sponsored by the US Armed Forces at Bay High School in Waveland, Mississippi.
LaShay 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.’
LaShay even brought Mike to the 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.”