‘Katrina Girl’ rescued by Air Force PJ to follow him into military service

Lashay Brown, 3, hugs Air Force Staff Sgt. Mike Maroney, as she is relocated to the New Orleans International Airport on Sept. 7, 2005, after Hurricane Katrina flooded her family's home. U.S. Air Force Photo/Airman 1st Class Veronica Pierce

His mission was like many others that day — as an Air Force Pararescueman, the then Staff Sgt. would be lowered on to the rooftop of a Hurricane Katrina victim’s home to perform an extraction. What he didn’t know that day in Sept. 2005 was his life would end up changed forever.

Now Master Sgt. Mike Maroney suggests that one, particular rescue and the ensuing events made a profound difference in his life.

He explains to Dayton Daily News he was lowered from a helicopter onto a roof where two parents and five children, including LaShay Brown, had been stranded for days. He said he was a week into making rescue missions in New Orleans that day, and he was battling Post Traumatic Stress at the time.

Putting his issues to the back of his mind, he executed the mission without flaw.

After the rescue, a photo of smiling Maroney hugging a then-three-year-old Brown was widely shared. Maroney credits that long-ago hug from LaShay with “rescuing him.”

Five years after the rescue, Maroney turned to the Internet using #FindKatrinaGirl to find LaShay. The campaign was shared across multiple social media outlets, and the photo touched people across the world.

In 2015, the shares, retweets and reposts paid off in a big way. LaShay, now 14, and Maroney were reunited on the TV talk show The Real.

The great news is — the story doesn’t end there.

WLOX reports now that Brown and Maroney have reunited, their bond is strong. So strong, Brown invited Maroney to escort her to the Junior ROTC ball.

Dozens of Bay High, located in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, JROTC members packed into the Lower Bay Community Center for the annual event, but all eyes were on Lashay and Maroney.

“It would be nobody else that could bring me here, and it would be more special to him,” said Brown.

Maroney recalled the rescue in 2015 for the Air Force Times, which was among dozens of publications that helped him find the little girl whose grin, had stayed with him for a decade. The girl, whose name he never got, seemed fearless that day, he told the Times.

As her mother cried on the helicopter, LaShay rubbed her back to comfort her.

“It’s Okay,” Maroney recalled her telling her mother. “We’re safe. Don’t worry.”

Maroney says he life changed forever that day.

“If not for her hug and smile that day, my life would probably be a lot different,” Mahoney told WLOX.

Since their reunion, Mahoney has become close to LaShay and her family. His encouragement led her to join the JROTC at school, so it was natural for her to ask him to escort her to the ball.

“I’m going because I would do anything to repay the hug to LaShay and her family,” Mahoney told People last week. “They mean as much to me as my own.”

His guidance also led to LaShay’s decision to join the military after graduation.

Maroney supports that decision, he told People.

“I am proud of her no matter what she does and will support her in everything she does,” Maroney told Dayton Daily News. “I think she understands service, and I believe that she will do great things no matter what she chooses.”

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  • Jim Verchio is a staff writer for Popular Military. As a retired Air Force Public Affairs craftsman, Jim has served at all levels. From staff writer to Editor-In-Chief, he has more than 30 years experience covering military topics in print and broadcast from the CONUS to Afghanistan. He is also a two time recipient of the DoD’s prestigious Thomas Jefferson Award for journalism excellence.

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