A rare friendship formed more than a decade after a United States airman rescued a little girl from Hurricane Katrina's devastation.
He drove Saturday from where he's stationed in San Antonio, Texas, to Hancock County, Mississippi, to attend her JROTC ball.
Master Sgt. Michael Maroney was a pararescue jumper who was flying over New Orleans picking up survivors of Hurricane Katrina when he saw a little girl.
"And when she smiled at me I was like, whoa! Because I was having a horrible day, but I mean, she was having a worse day but she was still smiling," said Maroney.
Then-3-year-old Lashay Brown had been stuck for three days without food or water before Maroney pulled her and family members to safety.
"When I got her mom up, her mom was scared. Lashay rubs her mom's back and says, 'It's OK, Mom, we're safe now.' And she wasn't just talking to her mom, she was talking to me," Maroney said.
Maroney has a military background who has also battled PTSD.
One moment with Lashay changed his life, Maroney said, and somebody just happened to take a photo of it.
"And she wraps me up in this hug, and all my pain went away. My heart didn't hurt. My head didn't hurt. Nothing hurt, and it felt good," said Maroney.
That good feeling stuck.
"I wanted to know how it turned out, so I started looking for them and found nothing," Maroney said.
Maroney searched for the little girl in the picture for nine years until he found her. They reunited just a month after the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
"We met on the TV show 'The Real.' I really (saw) him, and it was true, and I started crying," said Lashay.
Lashay, now 14, has kept in close touch with her rescuer.
Lashay said Maroney's influence in her life inspired her to want to join the military.
"He helped me a lot with physical training and stuff. He gives me tips on how to keep running because we do a lot of PT and all that. He means a lot to me. He's more like a family member than a friend," Lashay said.
At the ball, Maroney gave a speech and received a special honor.
"If she needed a heart or a lung, I would give that to her. I mean, that's how important her hug, her family is to me," said Maroney.
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