Staff Sergeant Michael “Mike” Maroney, 66th Rescue Squadron, Nellis AFB Air Force Base, Nevada, hovered over a maelstrom of water, debris, and human suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina on Sept. 6, 2005. New Orleans, Louisianna, the once flamboyant city, was then ground zero for impoverished refugees and Maroney, who felt detached from their cries, had spent the previous six days pulling out coma victims, families with no place to go, and refugee drop offs at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) camps around the sinking city.
Maroney was overwhelmed with the human condition there, not made easier due to his recent deployment to Afghanistan. “I had come back from a bad deployment, real bad,” he said. ”We didn’t pick up anyone alive.”
On this 7th day of the mission, Maroney and his team, from their perch in the rescue helicopter, saw a small family on the roof of their home flagging for help. Strapped in and ready to go, the non-commissioned officer was lowered to rescue the family. What he didn’t know was that a three-year-old girl, LeShay Brown, would rescue him.
The little girl wrapped herself around him as he began to pull her to safety. Piercing the fog of his deployment, and this mission, was Brown’s bright smile. Once in the helicopter, the frightened child wrapped herself around Maroney, giving him a giant hug. A combat photographer captured the private moment, which became a symbol to the country of heroism amidst devastating circumstances. To Maroney, the moment carried so much more meaning.
“When we were going to drop her off she wrapped me in a hug…that was everything. Time stopped,” Maroney said. “Words fail to express what the hug means to me.”
The rescue team eventually delivered Brown and her family safely to the FEMA camp. Although Maroney and the Browns went their separate ways, every year around September 6th, Maroney’s mind wonders about that little girl who had hugged away his burden. Where was she? How was she doing?
In 2010, five years after that magic hug, Maroney made the decision to find the little girl who saved him.
“I always wonder how everyone I drop off is,” he said.
The problem was, he didn’t know her name, where she went after Katrina, or even a photograph of how she would look at eight years old, so he turned to social media hoping to find some help.
“Every year around the anniversary I would post it (the now famous picture) asking, ‘Anyone know her?, Anyone recognize her?’” But, no one had seen ‘Katrina Girl,’ the name to which she was referred.
In 2014, help came from a Michigan high schooler, Andrew Goard, who messaged Maroney.
“He said helping me was his mission and he blasted everything on social media. I went from a couple hundred likes to thousands,” Maroney said. “I went on every talk show there is, telling my story.”
The viral hashtag, #findkatrinagirl, formed by Goard had started a nationwide manhunt.
“A couple months ago my son got an Instagram message from one of Brown’s friends. They had moved to Tennessee and she kept the same smile as in the picture,” Maroney said.
After verifying the young lady he found was Brown, his ‘Katrina Girl,’ he said he was dazed and nervous. “I waited a day to text them.”
When he did finally contact them, he and Brown’s mother talked about the family’s time during Katrina and the years following.
“When I had pulled them out they had gone five days without food,” Maroney said.
After being dropped off at the FEMA camp, the Browns were moved to Memphis, Tennessee. They eventually returned to New Orleans and have since moved to Waveland, Mississippi.
Finally, they talked about a reunion. Thanks to the talk show “The Real,” Maroney and the Browns were provided that opportunity.
On Sept. 15, 2015, more than 10 years after that life-changing hug, Maroney and Brown embraced once again. Now 13 years old, Brown is an honor-roll student and plays on the basketball team. Maroney continues his Air Force Reserve career as a master sergeant with the 308th Rescue Squadron, 920th Rescue Wing, Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.
When not in uniform, Maroney helps fellow veterans transition to civilian life.
Since the reunion, the Maroney and Brown families have grown close.
“I keep the picture of us on my wall for everyone to see,” Maroney said.
He and Brown’s mother text each other almost every day, sharing jokes, he added.
“In my line of work you don’t get a lot of happy days, so when you get them you grab them and hold onto them for all they’re worth.”