On Sept. 6, 2005, Air Force Pararescueman Master Sgt. Mike Maroney plucked 3-year-old LaShay Brown out of flood-ravaged New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
And for a decade after that, they lost touch.
At the time of the rescue, Maroney had spent six days on missions, and was battling post-traumatic stress disorder.
"When we were going to drop [Brown] off she wrapped me in a hug…that hug was everything. Time stopped," Maroney said in a 2015 Air Force release. "Words fail to express what that hug means to me."
Left: Master Sgt. Mike Maroney embraces 3-year-old LeShay Brown after rescuing her and her family from a New Orleans rooftop after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Right: Mahroney and 13-year-old Brown reunite after a 10-year search by Maroney to find the girl who's smile and hug helped him through the difficulties of the rescue effort. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman First class Veronica Pierce/Warner Brothers photo/Erica Parise)
The hug was captured in an iconic photo by Veronica Pierce, an airman first class at the time. Maroney didn't know who Brown was, or how she'd fared.
The PJ went on to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, keeping the photo to inspire him during tough moments. But according to a 2015 Air Force release, he always wondered what happened to the girl, especially around the anniversary of the rescue.
In 2015, they were reunited after 10 years on an episode of "The Real." Since then, they've have stayed in touch.
Two years later, LaShay, now a Junior ROTC cadet, invited Maroney to her school's JROTC ball. And Maroney accepted.
Master Sgt. Mike Maroney (middle), LaShay Brown (left) and Diane Perkins pose together for a photo during a reunion in Waveland, Mississippi. (USAF photo)
"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 told People.com.
LaShay has intentions of joining the military but hasn't decided which branch she will choose, a decision Maroney supports.
"I am proud of her no matter what she does and will support her in everything she does," he told People. "I think she understands service and I believe that she will do great things no matter what she chooses."