Air Force Vet’s Touching Reunion with ‘Katrina Girl’

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After searching for 10 years, Mike Maroney was finally reunited with LeShay Brown, the 3-year-old he rescued during Hurricane Katrina. (Photos: left, Airman 1st Class Veronica Pierce/U.S. Air Force; right, Instagram/The Real)

The Air Force veteran who spent 10 years looking for a little girl he saved during Hurricane Katrina met the now 13-year-old this week, in a long-awaited reunion.

Master Sgt. Mike Maroney and LeShay Brown, who was 3 when Maroney first met her, came face to face on Wednesday’s episode of The Real. The last time Maroney saw LeShay, she was in his helicopter after he rescued her family from the hurricane. LeShay had her arms wrapped around Maroney’s neck in a giant hug, with a smile that the dad of two says he could never forget. “Ten years is a long time, but when she smiled, I knew it was her,” Maroney tells Yahoo Parenting about seeing LeShay this week. “This is a moment I’ve been waiting a decade for. It was like the wait of 10 years — and the weight of 10 years — was lifted. I felt lighter.”

STORY: Dad Who Rescued Little Girl During Hurricane Katrina Reunites With Her 10 Years Later

Earlier this year, Maroney’s search for LeShay — and the original photo of the hug they shared — went viral, with the hashtag #FindKatrinaGirl. Last month, LeShay was finally identified. Maroney says he had originally planned a quiet reunion near LeShay’s home in Mississippi, but “so many people thought this moment was for America, that we need this happiness,” that he agreed to a televised reunion. When he arrived at the set of The Real, Maroney says he, LeShay, and her mother, Shawntrell Brown, were all backstage, but he was in a separate dressing room. “I was pacing back and forth, I was nervous, I was excited,” he says. “Think about the night before your wedding — those jitters and excitement and ‘I can’t wait to see them’ feeling — that’s how it felt.”

Before he was taken out on stage, Maroney says, The Real ran a video showing scenes from Katrina, which made him surprisingly emotional. “It was like being right back there,” he says. “I got a little choked up. That’s a side I usually don’t share with people, and I keep a lot of stuff inside — I have a lot of memories I’d rather not think about — so they all started bubbling up.”

STORY: Meet Hurricane Katrina’s ‘Youngest Survivor’

Still, when LeShay finally came on stage, Maroney says he felt nothing but joy. “I need something bigger — some supercalifragilisticexpialidocious kind of word — to explain the happiness I felt,” he says. “LeShay represents New Orleans and humanity, and if this family can get through it then there is hope, and that’s what we all need more of in the world right now.”

While he’s thrilled to finally have his 10-year search come a happy conclusion, Maroney says this success story has a greater message. “This doesn’t have to do with me, I just happen to be the person who requested to see her smile again,” he explains. “This is about this family’s resiliency. For me, that’s what this moment is — it’s sharing hope with the world. And if I can leave the world a little bit better with hope, then I’m running with it.”

When Maroney was finally able to talk to LeShay and Shawntrell in person, he says he was eager to tell them how much LeShay meant to him. “They didn’t know how important her smile and that hug was to me,” he says. “We had talked on the phone, but I wanted to tell them in person, and so I saved that. I told her that her small gesture of a hug and a smile, she had no idea what it did. I think she rescued me more than I rescued her.”

For her part, LeShay told Maroney she didn’t remember anything about Hurricane Katrina, “which I think is a blessing,” Maroney says. “Her family is just touched that somebody cared about them. They were thinking ‘why would somebody worry or be concerned about us?’ and I thought ‘Why not? You are great people.’”

Maroney expects that his family will be in touch with LeShay’s for a long time. In fact, he’s bringing his sons, 11 and 13, to visit her family this weekend. His plans for the weekend? “I’m going to teach LeShay how to swim.”

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