Normally, when rescue personnel save the lives of civilians in emergency situations, they never wind up seeing each other again.
This was not the case however for Master Sergeant Mike Maroney of the U.S. Air Force and LaShay Brown, the ‘little’ girl Maroney picked up with her family from the waters of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Air Force Airwoman, Veronica Pierce captured the moment LaShay gave her rescuer the biggest hug that he would never forget. The award-winning photo circled the globe and touched hearts around the world.
Maroney, who was battling PTSD at the time, carried the photo with him on difficult deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, to remind him of one of the most special moments in his life.
Eventually, Maroney decided to try and find the little girl who changed his life and even launched a #FindKatrinaGirl campaign on social media.
Finally, 10 years later, Maroney and LaShay were reunited on the set of The Real in September 2015. During their reunion, Maroney told LaShay, “You rescued me more than I rescued you.”
The two also did not end their newfound friendship there. Since being reunited in 2015, Maroney has visited the Brown family in Mississippi (even teaching LaShay how to swim) and has spoken to her on the phone weekly.
The support Maroney has shown to LaShay has encouraged her to join the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC), a pre-training program sponsored by the United States Armed Forces at Bay High School in Waveland, Mississippi.
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 again visit the Browns, as 14-year-old LaShay is bringing Maroney 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 plans to join the military one day but she hasn’t decided which branch yet.
“I am proud of her no matter what she does and will support her in everything she does,” Maroney says. “I think she understands service and I believe that she will do great things no matter what she chooses.”
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[Featured Image Credit: Erica Parise/Warner Bros. Television]