Thanks to a hashtag campaign, a few newspaper articles, and the help of a random Internet stranger, an Air Force veteran is reuniting with a little girl he saved in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Air Force Pararescue Jumper Mike Maroney witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by the historic hurricane just after returning from a rescue mission in Afghanistan. It’s been 10 years since Maroney lifted a young girl, her parents and siblings into an airport-bound helicopter, and received a big hug from the until-now unidentified three-year-old. Their embrace was captured by a military photographer, and instantly become a symbol of hope.
The hug “recharged me and gave me a little bit of a silver lining and some hope… that kept me going through rough times,” Maroney told People.
But Maroney never got her name, and hasn’t stopped thinking of her ever since. He made multiple attempts during the past decade to locate her, to no avail. Even a March story about his search on the Air Force Times didn’t turn up any results. And his 20-minute video about the experience didn’t initially make its way to her.
It wasn’t until 16-year-old Andrew Goard heard about Maroney’s story that they started getting closer. Goard’s grandfather was a Vietnam veteran and has a fascination with pararescue jumpers, like Maroney. He even has a whole Instagram account dedicated to celebrating their service.
Goard decided to launch the #FindKatrinaGirl hashtag, sharing Maroney’s 2005 photo and posting about it often on Instagram. The hashtag soon caught on, and news outlets all over were spreading the story. Ultimately, it ended up in Waveland, Mississippi, where LeShay Brown, the girl from the photo, now lives.
“The whole neighborhood told us they saw LeShay on the news and everybody told us someone was looking for her,” LeShay’s mother, Shawntrell, told People. Once she saw the photo, she knew it was her daughter.
Shawntrell reached out to Maroney, and now he’ll finally get to meet the now 13-year-old LeShay and thank her for making such a difference in his life. Their reunion is scheduled for later this month.
Although LaShay doesn’t remember taking the iconic photograph, she’s looking forward to meeting Maroney: “I was excited that he was looking for me for such a long time.”