A photograph taken in 2005 of an Air Force rescuer and a pigtailed preschooler became a symbol of hope during the Hurricane Katrina tragedy. Now, the veteran in the photo, Michael Maroney, has finally tracked down LeShay Brown, the little girl he rescued. When the photo was taken, Maroney was freshly returned from Afghanistan and thrust into another grim situation. When she hugged me, everything went away. There were no problems in that moment. That meant everything to me,” he said.
Despite not having her or her family’s names, veteran Mike Maroney never stopped looking for the little girl he rescued during Hurricane Katrina.
The hug she gave him over a decade ago “recharged me and gave me a little bit of a silver lining and some hope,” he told People. “It couldn’t have come at a more important time.”
Luckily for the now 40-year-old Air Force Reservist, his dedication has finally paid off. He recently discovered that the little girl he saved is named LeShay Brown, and the now 13-year-old lives in Mississippi with her family.
Even better: The two have plans to reunite in New Orleans later this month. And Maroney couldn’t be more excited. “I can’t wait to meet her to tell her how important she is.”
Ten years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, an Air Force veteran who helped during the recovery wants to recapture his fondest memory.
Mike Maroney was stationed in Las Vegas when Hurricane Katrina hit, and he was moved to New Orleans to help survivors. He was seven days in when he started checking out rooftops to rescue people from the devastating floods. He was feeling depressed, and having stomach problems from drinking the dirty water. And he was also being punished for growing his sideburns too long, and was put on rescue duty instead of leading a team.
On one rooftop, he found a family of seven people, including a little girl in a bright pink shirt, whose smile never faded despite her family’s dire situation. On the helicopter ride back to safety, she pointed out where her house was and where her school was, and comforted her mother the entire time. She gave him a big hug, and he dropped her off at the airport, never to see her again.
“If I never do anything else again, that hug and that smile made it all worthwhile,” he told the Air Force Times.
A photographer caught the moment, and the photo became iconic, a symbol of the good work that men and women in uniform do every day. The image was used on phone cards, magazines, and even placemats at the base.
Maroney, a single dad who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is now a master sergeant in the Air Force Reserve. He never got the girl’s name, but she never left his thoughts. He tries about once a year to find her, and even once reached out to Oprah Winfrey for help. But he’s been out of luck so far.
“I think that little girl had a bright future and was going places,” he said on YouTube.
The airman, who currently lives in San Antonio, Texas, said that when he phoned Brown and her family, he was nervous and scared that it would be a hoax, but her voice and the memories her mother shared confirmed for him that this was indeed the girl.
“Words cannot describe how I felt hearing their voices again at that moment,” Maroney said. “I was like, ‘Is this real? Is this really her?’ I’ve been waiting for 10 years for this, and finally I found her. I had a stupid smile across my whole face the whole time.”
Maroney said though Brown could only remember little of their helicopter ride together 10 years ago, her mother remembered everything.
“I was just happy to know they’re alive and doing alright,” he said. “Hopefully, in the next couple of weeks I’ll get to meet them in person, and I plan on bringing my two boys. They’re right around her age, so I think that’s why when I first met her 10 years ago, I was drawn to her.”
Maroney added that he wants to thank everyone who took to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and other social media to help him find Brown.